Wars and crises allow us to see the core values of our leaders. Recent events tell us something about Stephen Harper’s.
Following terrorist tragedies in France and Australia, prime ministers there acknowledged the incompetence of intelligence/security services that had taken their eyes off known ticking time bombs. Confronted with a similar reality after two separate incidents in Canada, Harper hasn’t.
As widely reported, the two French brothers who did the killings in Paris were well-known to counter-terrorism authorities.
Chérif Kouachi was convicted in 2008 for trying to join anti-American insurgents in Iraq. He was arrested again in 2010 in an alleged plot to free a militant from jail serving life for the 1995 bombing of the Paris Metro. Police searching Kouachi’s home had found videos of al-Qaeda. He was known to harbour anti-Semitic sentiments.
His older brother, Said, had gone to Yemen in 2011 to train with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Both were on American as well as British no-fly lists.
Yet French intelligence and law enforcement agencies did not even know what the brothers’ neighbours did — that the two had been amassing arms in their apartment.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls admitted a “clear failing. If 17 people die, this means mistakes have been made.”
The Aussie who held a Sydney café hostage in December had also been on police radar. Besides facing a charge, with his girlfriend, of burning and stabbing his former wife, Haron Monis had been harassing the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. His website openly railed against United States.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott: “We want to know why he wasn’t being monitored. The system did not adequately deal with the individual, there’s no doubt about that.”
Canadian security forces had known the two Quebecers who killed two soldiers in separate incidents in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa.
The first, Martin Couture-Rouleau was brought to the notice of authorities by his own parents who were concerned about his extremist views after he converted to Islam, his business failed and he went into depression. He was arrested and stopped from going to Turkey, possibly on his way to Syria/Iraq. His passport was seized. Yet he was let out of sight.
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who stormed Parliament, had also been denied a passport because it was assumed, wrongly, that he was a jihadist headed to Syria. His mother and acquaintances said he was a drug addict who wanted to go to Libya, his father’s homeland, or to Saudi Arabia to kick his habit. The RCMP said a video proved the official version but is yet to release the footage.
Yet Harper has not highlighted any intelligence/security lapses.
He hasn’t because he, too, clutched at straws to portray the acts of two troubled individuals as an international jihadist conspiracy that he, strong leader, was protecting Canadians from.
He has spoken similarly since the Paris attacks. “The international jihadist movement has declared war,” and “the reality is we are going to have to confront it.” He would do so by taking “additional measures.”
The fact is that Canada and most Western nations already have all the anti-terrorism powers they need.
Fanning public fears and exaggerating the terrorist threat suits both politicians and the security establishment. It helps the latter get more money and power. It helps leaders, as traumatized citizens rally behind them. It especially helps right-wing politicians, political parties and media that manufacture and cater to anti-Muslim prejudices.
If you have been portraying the challenge of terrorism by Muslims as a war between the West and Islam, or you have been feeding off it, or catering to a political base that truly believes in it, then it’s difficult for you to be inclusive of Muslims.
U.S. President Barack Obama, even while authorizing assassinations by drones, makes it clear that the war on terror cannot be a wholesale jihad against Islam or even cultural warfare on Muslims. He makes note of the Muslim victims of Muslim terrorism — as in his State of the Union address Tuesday: “We stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists — from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.”
European leaders are also trying to be unifiers.
French President Francois Hollande: “Muslims are the first victims of fanaticism, extremism and intolerance. French Muslims have the same rights, the same duties as all citizens.” Prime Minister Valls: France is “at war with extremism and terrorism, not Muslims.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “There must be no ostracism of Muslims, no sweeping suspicions. Any exclusion of Muslims, any general suspicion, is forbidden. The great majority of Muslims in Germany are law-abiding citizens.”
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg: “British Muslims are fervently British but also proud Muslims. To imply that they are somehow part of the problem rather than part of the solution is firmly grabbing the wrong end of the stick.”
Harper, however, prefers to rule by dividing Canadians. He panders to anti-Muslim bigots. He and his ministers are relentlessly tribal, showing solidarity with non-Muslim victims of terrorism, from Pakistan to Iraq and Syria. It’s a good electoral strategy for the Conservatives but it’s deeply un-Canadian. Among other things, it shuts off crucial debates on terrorism.
We are urged to keep waging wars on Muslims and spending untold billions on security at home, while curtailing citizens’ civil liberties.
Yet we are also told that being open, democratic societies, we cannot stop terrorist attacks. If so, why spend another penny and add yet more powers to the security labyrinth that still cannot get some of the most basic things right?
The bigger question is this: more than a decade into the war on terror, why are we still going in circles?