Friday, September 09, 2011

After 10 years, time to rethink 9/11 response

We’re coming at the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the wrong way.
It’s as if we want to relive those terrible moments, and forget what has happened in the decade since.
That Tuesday was a stunning day. Most of us had grown up believing that war and terrorism happened somewhere else. The images — a plane striking the twin towers, people jumping to certain death, the stunned faces of New Yorkers — had great impact.
So governments rushed to find ways to prevent new attacks. And, for the most part, we supported them in the first few months.
But 10 years later, it’s time to step back, consider what we have wrought and choose a new path forward.
The reality is that America, the target of the vicious attack, is worse off in virtually every way than it was a decade ago.
Not because of al Qaeda’s efforts. Americans are a resilient people; they have surmounted much greater difficulties.
The wounds have been self-inflicted. America, now in financial trouble, spent more than $3 trillion on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of the attacks, and hundreds of billions in security measures. The indirect costs were also enormous, as other priorities — like regulating a financial system that had become a giant con game — were ignored.
Its global stature, and the credibility of its government inside and outside the country, were greatly diminished as freedoms were eroded, rights compromised and torture condoned. The American public has developed a profound mistrust of those in power and destructive political divisions.
Nor has Canada been immune. We joined the Afghan war at a military cost of $18.5 billion, and the sacrifice of 162 lives. Our Parliament passed new anti-terror laws that limited rights once considered fundamental. Security measures touched most Canadians’ lives at some point, even if only in the form of delays and searches at airports.
A Rideau Institute report this week estimated that Canada has spent an extra $90 billion as a result of 9/11, creating new measures and agencies and expanding the roles of others — almost $2,600 for every Canadian.
It’s time, after a decade, to come to a more realistic assessment of the risks of terror attacks, and the best ways of responding.
The 9/11 attacks did change things. The threat of terrorism always existed — the World Trade Centre had already been targeted, in 1993. But the attacks in New York and Washington showed the scale of possible damage and demonstrated to would-be attackers the impact of a major successful blow.
But the decade since has not brought a wave of attacks. The threat of an organized global terror effort never materialized; al Qaeda while dangerous, never grew in strength or effectiveness; Canadians continue to be affected much more by security efforts than by terrorism.
Some will argue that our continued security shows the effectiveness of the measures and that we should spend more, and sacrifice more liberties, to increase safety.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took that position this week. When Parliament rushed to pass the Antiterrorism Act in the aftermath of 9/11, it included provisions that some of the extraordinary measures infringing on individual liberty would expire in 2007. Canada has been safe without them since then, but Harper plans to bring them back this fall.
In a column on the first anniversary of the attack, I noted that “the state — Canada or Afghanistan, America or Iraq — always wants to increase its power over the people. It’s not sinister; if you are in charge of keeping order, then you will want to make that task easier — surveillance cameras on every corner, fewer legal right for citizens. But it’s an imperative that means citizens must always be prepared to push back.”
It’s time to push back, in a sensible and informed way. It’s time to question the scale and scope of security spending, in a prudent way. Canada spends $40 million a year to have armed RCMP air marshalls on flights, for example. Perhaps that can end. Perhaps we can spend focus less on extraordinary laws and more on effective intelligence.
That was a terrible day 10 years ago. But it did not change everything. It’s time we regained our balance, and confidence, as a people.


Here's my 2002 first anniversary column on 9/11. It stands up well.

A licence to extend the state's power

There's something at once wrong and frightening about the fervent celebration of the attacks on the United States one year ago.

Wrong, because it rests on the false pretence that Sept. 11 was a defining moment that changed everything, for everyone.

And frightening because it is being used to justify mindless conformity, an erosion of individual rights in favour of the state -- and even war.

It was a terrible day. But most people have placed that devastating event into some appropriate place among the other terrible and joyous moments that define a life. About 40,000 children were born in B.C. last year. For those families, 2001 won't be the year the World Trade Center was destroyed; that pales beside the wonder of a new life beginning. About 315 British Columbians killed themselves last year. For those families, it will be the year that someone was lost, and something in them died, too.

The attacks were terrible. But they were not different in purpose or effect than the decades of horrors that the current generation has witnessed.

Even their scale is not beyond comparison. Some 3,000 people died last Sept. 11. Twenty times as many died when the second bomb fell on Nagasaki; twice as many died in Bhopal after the 1994 Union Carbide disaster; about the same number of Africans will die of AIDS while you are at work today.

Last Sept. 11 was an awful day, but everything didn't change because of it. We still go to work, look for happiness, slide into despair. We raise our children. Just like always. And one year later, I am much less frightened of a terror attack than I am of the governments supposedly on my side.

The state -- Canada or Afghanistan, America or Iraq -- always wants to increase its power over the people. It's not sinister; if you are in charge of keeping order, then you will want to make that task easier -- surveillance cameras on every corner, fewer legal right for citizens. But it's an imperative that means citizens must always be prepared to push back.

For a year governments have been using Sept. 11 as a licence to extend the state's power. And an uncertain public has failed to push back.

Airport security may have needed upgrading, perhaps through improved training. But a $24-per-ticket surcharge is taking $400 million a year from travellers' pockets and has wounded regional airlines and the communities they serve. The take from Vancouver alone is enough to hire more than 600 extra security staff; the need has never been demonstrated.

The federal government likewise made no effective case for $8 billion in increased security spending over the next five years, money it could never find to help Canada's poorest children or reduce the tax burden.

And now the U.S. is pressuring Canada to spend more on defence, even after a 10-per-cent increase this year. (The Americans spend $400 billion a year on their military, more than the next 25 countries combined. To match their level of per-capita spending, Canada would have to more than triple its defence budget.)

Sadly, it's not just about money. The Bush administration quickly passed the "USA Patriot Act" (the name, commanding mindless acquiescence, should sound alarm bells.) Americans lost rights they had treasured for 200 years. The right to legal representation, to a speedy and public trial, to protection from unjustified searches -- all gone. Americans can now be jailed indefinitely and secretly, without a trial.

Canada didn't go as far. But the prime minister can now outlaw groups based on secret evidence. Police gained the right to arrest someone who has broken no law on the suspicion that person is involved in terrorist activities. You can now be jailed for refusing to answer police questions.

And then there is war. Canada fought in Afghanistan, to little obvious effect. And now we are being asked to fight in Iraq, not because of anything that nation has done, but because the U.S. believes Saddam Hussein may some day do something. This is not a war on terrorism; it's a beating for a nation the U.S. simply wishes had a different leader.

Enough. Everything did not change in a few terrible hours one year ago. We have rights and freedoms and values worth defending, and a commitment to the rule of law that should not be abandoned when a government finds it convenient.

We will betray our past and our future if we allow ourselves to be defined by a single day of terror.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Campbell's order, no fall election and the slow HST repeal

On Gordon Campbell’s Order of B.C., Christy Clark’s belated rejection of a fall election and more.

First, Campbell’s selection for the Order of B.C. The decision is bad by any measure. The order was created in 1989 to recognize achievement and service. Candidates are nominated, and then selected by a seven-person panel. It’s supposed to be an honour and a celebration.

Campbell was forced out of office by public anger. It’s far too early to judge his impact as premier. He has been a divisive figure over the last decade.

There were no grounds to award the honour. Especially as only one premier - Bill Bennett - has been inducted into the order. And it came 21 years after he left office.

Campbell’s prize was so rushed it probably broke the rules. Elected representatives aren’t eligible. The nomination deadline was March 10. Campbell didn’t resign until March 15 and so shouldn’t have been considered.

The selection panel includes a university president, the province’s chief justice, a deputy minister, a Union of B.C. Municipalities rep, the Speaker and two members of the order.

A mostly elite group, and one closely tied to Campbell and the Liberals. Speaker Bill Barisoff is a Liberal MLA and a loyalist. The deputy minister, Pierette Miranda, worked in the premier’s office. The UBCM rep, Barbara Steele, was a Liberal candidate. The universities’ representative, Ralph Nilson, has donated to the Liberals. One of the order members, John Furlong, was backed by Campbell as the 2010 Olympic top boss.

Which all makes Campbell’s selection look like a handful of establishment people looking after one of their own, without even thinking how other British Columbians might see the choice. (A perception reinforced by the simultaneous induction of Ken Dobell, Campbell’s long-time managerial sidekick, and David Emerson, the federal politician who ran as a Liberal and immediately crossed over to the Conservatives and a cabinet job.)

It’s surprising the panel didn’t think this might be seen as thumbing their noses at British Columbians, whose disdain forced Campbell from office.

Second, Clark’s announcement that a fall election is no longer an option and she’ll wait for the fixed election date of May 14, 2013.

It’s the right decision. The province has been damaged by two years of chaotic tax policy and political uncertainty. It’s time to try for stable government.

And Clark hasn’t given any clear indication of her vision and agenda for the province in the six months since she won the leadership. It’s too soon for an election.

But her refusal to rule out a fall election until now still looks irresponsible.

And Clark’s comments in announcing that she wouldn’t call an election reinforce the perception, right or wrong, that she isn’t serious enough about the premier’s job.

Clark said she had listened to the public, and people didn’t want an election. And she said she recognized that an election would be harmful, given global financial instability.

But that was Wednesday. Just five days earlier, Clark had refused to rule out a fall election. Surely she knew about the global financial crisis then.

Third, the HST reversal. The government took about 11 months to impose the tax from they announced it, having done no studies or analysis of its impact.

But Finance Minister Kevin Falcon says it will take 19 months to rescind it, even though the government has had months to prepare for the likely result of the referendum.

That’s a damaging delay. Why do a major home reno, for example, if the tax hit will be much lower once the HST is repealed? Or start a restaurant?

Falcon and company were once critics of the creeping pace of government. Now he seems comfortable with what he once considered outrageous.

All of which suggests Clark is wise to put off an election for a while.

Footnote: The other HST question is why the government has been so quick to roll over and promise to repay the federal government the full $1.6 billion incentive payment to adopt the tax. The HST will have been in place for half the required five-year term. The province spent money to implement the tax, in good faith. At the least, some hard bargaining was in order, not a quick agreement to repay all the money.