by Ernie Regehr
In the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, the dominant refrain was that the menace had arrived on our shores and we in North America would now all have to rise to the challenge and “defend our way of life.” But Prime Minister Chrétien’s early message was different. Now more than ever, he told the House of Commons, we would have to depend on our way of life: “Let our actions be guided by a spirit of wisdom and perseverance, by our values and our way of life. As we press the struggle, let us never, ever, forget who we are and what we stand for.”
It was a distinction that went unnoticed where it counted most. Washington adopted the mantra that on 9-11 “everything changed,” while CNN’s omnipresent banner headline trumpeted “America’s New War.” The claim that “everything changed” actively discouraged the idea that we could depend on our way of life, on its durable civil values and standards, in responding to the challenge of terrorism. The insistence that we were in extraordinary times fed the view that extraordinary measures were now required and we should not be constrained or inhibited by the rules and values that guide us in normal times. The “everything changed” mood fostered the sense that we were in a new context in which the usual political rudders and the navigational aids offered by established morality could not be relied on and needed to be jettisoned in favour of new tools.
Within weeks of the attack, CNN’s banner ceased to be a metaphor. Claiming self-defence, the United States attacked Afghanistan; the United Nations Security Council implicitly agreed; NATO states invoked article V of their alliance pact to declare the terrorist attack on the United States an attack on them all; and Canada sent four ships to the war effort in symbolic but unmistakable acquiescence to the prevailing mood – and in sanguine disregard of the Prime Minister’s earlier wisdom.
Five years into America’s New War, we’ve seen a surfeit of innovative tools, used by the United States as well as Canada: arrests without trial or security certificate detentions, violations of privacy through wiretap programs, illegal deportations, abuse of prisoners and of course renewed warfare. In time, warfare converted Iraq from an oppressive state that nevertheless eschewed Islamic extremism and refused cooperation with Islamic terrorism into a spectacularly failed state where lawlessness and escalating sectarian violence offer an open arena for the recruitment, training and activity of terrorists. In Afghanistan, the all-out American attacks in 2001 deposed the Taliban with impressive efficiency, but then things got a lot more complicated. Once again, Afghanistan was flooded with small arms and light weapons. Warlords continued to use their private armies for criminal trafficking in drugs in a thriving opium trade that now accounts for half of the country’s GDP and finances the still-growing insurgency.