The arrest in Toronto of seventeen men, mostly quite young, for conspiracy to bomb places in Southern Ontario has raised a storm of comment. Unfortunately, much of it has been either premature or wrong.
A Congressman from Northern New York, uninformed but still generous with his opinions, declared that Canada was thick with al Qaeda cells owing to its liberal (a truly filthy word in the United States) immigration and refugee laws. Sadly, the Congressman’s big red-nose talents are appreciated only in Canada, his ignorance being taken for insight in many parts of the United States.
Pat Buchanan parodies are also taken seriously by some in Canada, particularly in Alberta, and there are people here eager for any opportunity to prove their anti-terror bone fides to America’s unsmiling leaders. This strain in our society should alert us to the possibility, however remote, of skewed investigations where terror is concerned.
The New York Times, that tea-sipping, wealthy widow of American newspapers, went out of her way to recognize The Toronto Star for substantial coverage of events. That is not praise clear-headed people welcome, The Times often having been on the wrong side of human rights issues as well as having served as the official Wal-Mart Greeter on the path to war.
Condoleezza Rice, too, took approving note of events in Toronto, but that surely is the moral equivalent of a twinkle from the eyes of Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Members of any security and intelligence apparatus are not immune to such blandishments. Results or seeming results bring praise, promotion, and budget increases to establishments that normally enjoy little public recognition. I have no reason to believe there has been inappropriate behavior by officials here, but I emphasize the importance of healthy skepticism until a clear picture emerges. The lack of healthy skepticism in America is precisely what has reduced that society to a spineless acceptance of whatever authority says, no matter how uninformed or unreasonable.
The known facts of the Toronto case are simple. CSIS, Canada’s intelligence agency, identified one or more of these fellows on an Internet chat room about two years ago. This prompted additional investigation, and a group of young men sharing angry dreams was discovered. Finally, when a 3-ton load of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used as a component for an explosive, was offered by the watchers and accepted by someone in the group, a wave of arrests quickly followed.
My first observation is that any group of young men thoughtless enough to reveal violent intentions on an Internet chat site represent a pretty low-level threat. After all, these chat sites are monitored constantly by police and intelligence services of many countries for child predators, traders in child porn, threats to governments, and for extreme political statements of every kind. Doing what these young men supposedly did is comparable to trying to build a bomb in a department-store display window on a busy avenue.
Well, maybe they are not very bright, and we do still need to be protected from people who are not very bright, but the bizarre nature of the accusations against them is suggested by statements from a lawyer for one of the accused.
While formal charges have not been produced and lawyers for the accused have received no discovery information, the lawyers were permitted, in a Darkness at Noon fashion, to read (but not copy) a synopsis of accusations which I understand is typically prepared by police. Apparently, such synopses have a history of great inaccuracy when compared to actual legal charges finally submitted in court. I believe that it was with this in mind and with the intention of alerting the thinking public to some odd stuff that a lawyer for one of the accused stood outside the court and recited some of the accusations. The points include a wish to behead the Prime Minister, take government hostages, blow up part of Parliament, and attack the CBC.
Behead the Prime Minister? Doesn’t that just sound like what you would expect from angry young men discussing violent fantasies in a chat room? How many pimply-faced young men annually express dire wishes for school principals, teachers, girlfriends’ fathers or others with some authority?
It may not be much of a legal charge, but it’s great stuff for the press, and we’ve had the words cell, al Quaeda, and terrorism repeated countless times. There is not the least justification yet for any of these words.
We must keep in mind that a group of unhappy young men can easily be manipulated by a clever intelligence agent or policeman. Seduction and psychological manipulation are at the very heart of producing what is called human intelligence. There is often a rather fine line between young conspirators being observed by undercover agents and foolish young men being manipulated into incriminating themselves.
The press loves turning to someone resembling authority at such times for incisive comments, so mysterious “terror experts” suddenly are everywhere on Canada’s airwaves. God, they seem to have descended like a great ugly flock of grief counselors, another questionable kind of expert, following a school killing.
I heard two terror experts on CBC radio. One an ex-British soldier and another an ex-CSIS official, both earning their livings now by selling security to private firms and governments. Ask an insurance agent whether you have enough life insurance and what response can you anticipate with virtually one-hundred percent certainty?
These experts warn of undefined fears, as in, who knows how many others are “out there”? Well, who knows how many dishonest terror experts there are out there hawking fear? The ex-CSIS man did it more subtly and gracefully than the ex-soldier, but shadowy nonsense remains shadowy nonsense, no matter the tone and vocabulary. The ex-CSIS man questioned the future application to Canada of a favorite expression of mine, “the peaceable kingdom,” while offering absolutely nothing of substance to warrant his statement.
Even if these young men are guilty of crimes, how is their case so different to that of a man in Montreal who shot fourteen women one day or a pig farmer outside Vancouver whose hobby for years was luring with drugs dozens of prostitutes to their deaths? Does political anger make it different? Religion? A violent crime is a crime, and those found guilty should be separated from society. What we have here is the demonstrated wisdom of keeping an eye on Internet chat sites and on people doing questionable activities, but that is the case for many crimes we emphasize more than we once did, as with child pornography. There is no reason for a special fear to take hold when the subject is terror. It is dangerous and destructive of our best values.
I’ve often wondered where people go to become “terror experts.” Is there a graduate degree offered by Bob Jones University or at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty U? We know that a true and effective terrorist organization like the IRA always keeps its business utterly secret. Those suspected of informing are murdered without hesitation.
Some of these “experts” have experience in Israel, but everything that comes out of Israel on the subject of terror resembles a script prepared by the state security apparatus. Israel vigorously promotes the idea of terror in the world the way some countries promote tourism. It is simply in its interest.
Many of the firms for which the experts work were founded by men like Henry Kissinger and William Colby as ways of keeping a high income in retirement and an oar in the waters of intrigue. The intentions of such firms are entirely suspect. In some cases the firms may well serve as ways for American intelligence to penetrate the existing security of unsuspecting firms and governments, at home and abroad.
America’s extreme, erratic, and often-uninformed attitudes towards terror provide the powerful gravitational field influencing and distorting current events. Why do I describe American attitudes as erratic and uninformed? First, terror did not begin with 9/11. Outfits like the IRA, ETA, and The Shining Path have decades of history, much of it unknown to average Americans who remain indifferent to what does not directly affect them.
America’s own history is rich with tolerated internal terrorist organizations. This starts at the beginning with the Sons of Liberty before the American Revolution beating and tar-and-feathering officials in the colonies who were just doing their duty for what was then the legal government. Often officials’ homes were attacked and either burnt or torn down. The same fate fell to Loyalists after the war. They were beaten, often burned-out, always run from their homes, and had their property stolen.
The tradition of internal terror vigorously continued with the Klu Klux Klan, an organization active for about a century, and it continued down through the fascist Bund of the 1930s and to the many armed, private militias that were so popular for decades until Timothy McVeigh’s shadow fell across them. There are many, many examples of this kind of terror in American history, another notable one being Cosa Nostra, whose violent operations were long ignored by an FBI busy tracking left-leaning school teachers.
America has never winced at supporting terror in other places for causes with which it felt sympathy. The greatest example of this was decades of lavish support for the IRA. Collections were openly made in Irish bars in Chicago, New York, and Boston to buy the IRA’s guns and bombs. Politicians and police were aware of this and did nothing, indeed some of them undoubtedly were contributors.
The most dreadful terror associated with America has been the state terror of its long series of colonial wars after World War II. Sometimes the terror is delegated to proxies, financed, trained, and given weapons and intelligence by the American government. This was the case in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and a dozen other hells. Millions were spent by the CIA subsidizing thugs in Florida who carried out bombings and shootings in Cuba.
In Indonesia, with the end of Sukarno’s government in 1965, the U.S. supported what was then the greatest holocaust since Hitler’s, with five-hundred thousand Indonesians having their throats cut and their bodies dumped into rivers just because they were suspected of being communists. State Department officials are reported to have been on phones late into the night transmitting lists of names for the slaughter.
Vietnam was “hands-on” terror. Countless carpet bombings, search-and-destroy missions, napalmings, night-crawler assassinations, and other horrors chalked up maybe three million victims in an undeclared war against people in their own land. Along the way, interrogated suspects were thrown from helicopters and unknown thousands of helpless village women were raped and murdered. The terror spread to Cambodia when America’s secret bombings and incursions destabilized its government and gave the world “the killing fields” of Pol Pot.
The point of reciting these dark parts of American history is to demonstrate forcefully how often that nation has turned to inappropriate, violent responses, and it proved no different in the case of 9/11. A great crime was committed, and any criminals who survived deserved to be brought to justice. But that was not what happened. Instead two Muslim nations were invaded, tens of thousands killed, a giant, secret kidnapping-and-torture organization established, and many civil liberties cast aside. This is not a model for Canada or any civilized society.
No thinking person believes that Canada’s foreign policy should be driven by threats from any group. However, that is not the same thing as recognizing that great numbers of angry young men, here and abroad, are a symptom of something being very wrong.
Unless they are psychopaths, people do not just suddenly decide to blow things up. If they are psychopaths, then what they do cannot be called political and cannot be labeled as terrorism. America was advised privately, before its invasions, by many who understood that one result would be a huge wave of anger and alienation in the Muslim world. As with so many other wise words, this advice was ignored by Bush’s fanatics.
Canada’s new participation in Afghanistan is a ghastly mistake. It associates Canada’s good name with a failed, disastrous policy. The fact is that U.S. is already slowly, quietly withdrawing from the mess it created in Afghanistan. It has pressured a number of allies, notably Canada and Great Britain, to help cover this gradual withdrawal. That really is Canada’s dirty task in Afghanistan. Canada is not there to help people find peace and stability (although I am confident that Canada’s troops will do some of this wherever the possibility exists) because the truth is that the U.S. has already quietly given the task up as lost. It fought a “cheap” war in Afghanistan, using warlords every bit as nasty as the Taleban to gain a quick victory, and there is almost no possibility of constructing a modern democratic state from the remains.
I do believe we will see justice for the young men in Canada with nothing but facts determining their fate. Canadians are a sensible and decent people. All the rash and uninformed comments made in recent days will fade like yesterday’s headlines about miracles and aliens in The National Inquirer.
At the same time, I hope Canadians consider more carefully the deeply flawed policies Bush has imposed on the world. Two ancient Muslim nations are occupied and smoldering with resentment amidst economic ruin. A great, world cultural treasure has been pillaged and destroyed, making the Taleban’s thuggish destruction of statues some years ago seem small by comparison. Iraq has been driven into the destructive beginnings of civil war. The country still does not have even dependable water or electricity. The U.S. threatens a third Muslim country almost weekly. Palestinians are treated worse today by Israel, with smiling American acquiescence, than black Africans were under apartheid, and there is no hint of a just end to the situation. And the learning curve in guerilla fighting means nothing but more intense attacks against foreign armies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Robert Fisk, the superb British journalist on Middle East affairs, had a fascinating column recently. He explained how at the Baghdad morgue, one of whose officials he knows, there are standing orders that bodies brought in by Americans are not to be autopsied. The bodies often come tagged with a cursory description of the cause of death along the lines of extreme trauma. This is the kind of gruesome, revealing detail you will never see broadcast on American networks.
Not only do America’s trigger-happy soldiers shoot innocent people regularly at roadblocks and in raids, but there is a secret dirty war going on in which political Iraqis are assassinated by America’s private mercenary forces. A large number of Iraqi scientists previously associated with weapons programs have been mysteriously murdered, almost certainly the work of Mossad being given a free hand in the country. Americans may be unaware of what is being done in their name, but the people of Western Asia are well aware of it, and memories in the Middle East are long.
The argument that Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan would make no difference is utterly false because the most important difference to be made involves our integrity and deepest principles.
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Ontario.