Why the Conservatives Keep Whipping Up Fear of Terrorists, Criminals and Peaceful Protestors

For progressive Canadians picking five or six issues to focus on in the fight to rid the country of the current federal regime, one area that is critical to the outcome is exposing the Harper government’s construction of the national security state.

I refer here to the commitment of the Harper Conservatives to implementing policies that increase the importance of a war-fighting military in Canadian society, its preoccupation with tough-on-crime legislation, its blank check to security operations like the one “protecting” the G20 summit, and its continued efforts to convince Canadians that they face the constant risk of terrorist attack.

The flip side of the coin: criminalizing dissent and trashing civil liberties so that opposition to this agenda can be kept to a minimum.

The national security state is a term that has been long connected with corporate globalization and the Washington consensus — the set of policies established in the mid-1970s to replace the old post-war social contract. Its most familiar elements are privatization, deregulation, so called “free trade,” tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and massive cuts to social spending. All of these have been visited upon Canada over the past 20 years.

But the sixth element of that elite consensus was always there in the background, and reflected the ruling elites’ anticipation of a popular reaction to the devastating effects of the other five: as conditions worsen, as wages and living standards fall, as personal insecurity increases, and as the social safety net frays, the threat of a radical response becomes real.

The national security state is intended to protect the gains made through free market policies, and at the same time, gradually redefine what government means to the citizenry. We have in Stephen Harper a prime minister who virtually never refers to Medicare, education, social protection, the environment, poverty reduction or indeed any of the issues that the vast majority of Canadians say they care about.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have committed themselves to this broader agenda of diminishing the government’s social role. But the Harper government has committed itself to changing the Canadian political culture in such a way that bringing it back to equilibrium could be difficult. Under former armed forces Chief Rick Hillier, the military was suddenly everywhere, showing up at public picnics and cultural events, and our “mission” in Afghanistan seemed to define the country in Harper’s political spin. Only when he realized the mission was a disaster did the military hype die down.

But building up the military, at stupendous cost, is still on the agenda. We now spend more on the military in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars than at any time since the Second World War. The Lockheed Martin F35 fighter-bombers (which with inevitable cost overruns could cost us $20-30 billion) are just the latest toys to be ordered for the armed forces. No one honestly thinks they are being sought for any real military purpose. These stealth weapons are designed for one thing: to slip undetected past an enemy’s defenses in a first strike, “shock and awe” attack. Which enemy? And then what? We send in our army? This role is only plausible if it is in support of some new U.S. adventure.

Real defense department needs — such as support/supply ships (critical in humanitarian missions), icebreakers to patrol the Arctic and heavy transport planes are all higher priorities. It demonstrates that the purpose of the F35s is political and cultural, not military. The commitment is to “interoperability” with the US military, not to Canadian security needs.

Ratcheting up fear as crime drops

The law and order agenda of the government is another front in the cultural war being waged by Harper against his own country. The fact that he keeps re-introducing the crime bills and then letting them die suggests that one of his main purposes is just to keep the fear of crime alive.

It’s a tough job. Crime in Canada has been declining for almost 30 years and everyone in government knows it. So we are treated to Stockwell Day (the born-again Christians’ man in the cabinet) claiming with a straight face that we need the prisons for unreported crime. (As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there…)

The crime rate is down almost 15 per cent since 1994-95. Homicide rates are at the lowest rate in 30 years; firearm homicides have decreased in the past 15 years by 37 per cent. Mr. Harper, of course, tried to eliminate one of the major contributors to the decline in gun deaths: the long gun registry. Murders with rifles and shotguns have decreased dramatically, from 107 in 1991 to 32 in 2007 because of the stronger controls on firearms.

And the cost of this phony war on crime? Just the new law limiting the credit given to prisoners for time served in custody before trial will cost $1 billion to implement and billions more to maintain, according to a study commissioned by parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. The study had to use estimates because the government refused to hand over specific data.

The total costs for prisons in 2003-04 was $1 billion for provincial correctional centers and $1.447 billion for federal penitentiaries. The sentencing legislation alone will increase that by no less than 40 per cent. The law will double the number of inmates by 2015 and more than double the cost of incarceration in federal and provincial facilities from an estimated $4.4 billion to $9.5 billion, most of which will be paid for by the provinces.

The government never lets pass an opportunity to remind people of the war on terror and just how close we are to being attacked. Last November, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told the Halifax International Security Forum that serious intelligence reports about potential terrorist threats to Canada cross his desk “almost daily.” A more irresponsible and obviously false declaration is hard to imagine.

When it comes to security operations, it seems it is simply carte blanche from the PMO. The obscene cost of hosting the G8 and G20 summits in Toronto ($1 billion) is a case in point. There seemed to be no budget set at all — just an open check book to spend whatever security agencies wanted. Money was no object. The government recently released what it says is the cost for security: $675 million, multiples of what any other country has ever spent on security for these summits.

Cracking protesters’ heads

But it wasn’t just the free-flowing cash that revealed the results of a growing security state. The unprecedented behavior of the police in Toronto demonstrated just how the culture gradually changes when a new normal gets established. Arresting 1,000 people (a Canadian record); raiding the sleeping quarters of demonstrators and hauling them all off to jail (all charges later dismissed); corralling hundreds of peaceful demonstrators — and bystanders — and refusing to let them out of the ring of riot police while it poured rain for several hours; deliberate and systematic humiliation of those arrested; denial of food and water and legal counsel; and the apparently deliberate abandonment of police cars so the anarchist Black Bloc (also police?) could burn them — in a planned effort to justify the later brutality.

We will probably never know how all of this happened, but if it was not ordered and co-coordinated it might just as well have been. The results were the same. What other objective, except to criminalize dissent, could have been in the minds of the cops who carried out the abuse and in the minds of the prosecutors who validated it?

There are many other examples that could be listed, including the harassment of anti-Olympics activists in Vancouver by special Olympic cops who accosted people at subways stations, at workplaces and on the street.

Each time these outrages go unchallenged by federal opposition politicians, the national security state clicks one notch forward and “normal” gets a bit worse. When tough-on-crime bills sail through almost without comment even when crime is declining, and when we are spending billions and billions on defense when we have no enemies, there is something terribly wrong with the body politic.

The country is changing before our eyes, and federal opposition parties are letting it happen.

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years. He has been a columnist for the Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press, contributes guest editorials to the Globe and Mail and other Canadian dailies and now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and rabble.ca. He can be reached at mdobbin@telus.net.



MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He can be reached at murraydobbin@shaw.ca