Saturday, September 11, 2021

A licence to extend the state's power

This seems like a good day to share my Sept. 11, 2002, column from the Vancouver Sun. 

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 people in Africa 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.

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