Saturday, 25 October 2014

Before Canadians hurt themselves patting each other on the back ...

A few things about the attacks in Canada this week underscored positive features or trends about Canadian society.  (i) Canada's CBC deserved commendation forits careful, balanced news coverage (link), (ii) Some news media attempted to deviate from the typical US news media's obsession with identifying and discussing personal details of the killer (link, Rex Murphy on youtube) and (iii) evidence of unwillingness to mistreat Muslims as a result of the attacks (links):

That said, there are important respects in which Canada's response has not only failed to exceed the standard set by the US but has been worse.  In particular, it seems significant free speech limitations are envisioned (link):

 “Sources suggest the government is likely to bring in new hate speech legislation that would make it illegal to claim terrorist acts are justified online.
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on Thursday that Canada’s law and policing powers need to be strengthened in the areas of surveillance, detention and arrest. “

Amazing, we're going to make it illegal to voice an opinion (in addtion to increasing surveillance, detention and arrest?)?  Aside from this being just an obvious violations of the most basic forms of free speech protection that any democracy should embrace, there's a deeper problem. The whole notion of 'terrorism' is one that is often used to simply stifle debate or pave over any nuanced discussion of what may have motivated it. (see a recent article by Tomas Kapitan on this: link.). Furthermore, its sense isn't entirely clear. What should count as terrorism? In many instances it ends up being most anything done against one's own country while being defined in such a way so that the action of US (or Canadian) combatants cannot be terrorism, no matter on whom it is practiced.  Finally, the last thing to consider before praising ourselves for being so much more enlightened than Americans in responding to a perceived terrorist attack, note this particularly ominous quotation from Peter Mackay this week (link): 

"We're looking ... to see if there is a way in fact to improve or build on those elements of the criminal code that allow for pre-emptive actions. ...." [emphasis added]

Hey, Canada is going all Minority Report.  Remember the Precrime department? 

On Greenwald's Comments on the Attack in Canada

I'm usually a big fan of Glenn Greenwald's and appreciate his incisive analysis but I think his recent comments (link) on the attack in Canada earlier this week are a little off.

I think the causal links he claims between Canada's participation in the WOT(tm) and this week's earlier attack is highly speculative at best and probably wrong. I suspect that the causal forces here have a lot more to do with alienated disturbed men looking to lash out at a society in which they failed to find a place. (One of the guys was asked to leave a mosque, so it would be nice if we could also avoid the blaming of Islam here too, okay, Bill Maher?)  In fact, I'm frustrated with the government's eagerness to jump to the conclusion that it is terrorism, but one understands why they might.  All the better to use the attack to justify rollbacks of civil liberties.

If these guys did have any real links with terrorist groups overseas, it serves only to suggest that these terrorist groups are pretty ineffectual. "Hey, take a car and drive into people." "Find an old crappy hunting rifle and start shooting people." Hardly the stuff of devious Bondian super criminals. But that aside, I'll also say that I think he's setting up something of a strawman here. The people eager to call this a terrorist attack aren't really bewildered as to why terrorists might attack Canada. Few people are under the impression that Canada has had no involvement in the WOT. 

Greenwald \conflates the notion of shock and amazement at extraordinary events with inability to give any sorts of causal explanation for the atypical event. If a tree falls on my house, it wouldn't be bizarre for me to freak out and yell and scream and say "wow, that was really freaky and scary, I can't believe what just happened, a tree fell on my house and killed my dog. One minute we were watching TV, the next my dog was dead and my house was in ruins.". Suppose you were to respond, "oh, actually, I can give a causal explanation. Your house was near a tree, the tree was old and it was really windy, we can give a clear causal explanation for the tree falling", That would be to just totally misunderstand the surprise/amazement I'd been expressing about the tree falling. Expressing surprise/awe/amazement at atypical negative events isn't the same thing as expressing ignorance about the cause of those events.

None of this is to downplay or ignore Canada's role in the war on terror (although to its credit, Canada at least stayed out of Iraq), just noting that I'm skeptical of the linkage claimed here and the extent to which Canada's would be baflled about why actual terrorists might want to attack.