“Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2).
Let me tell you a true story.
In the early days of Simon Fraser University, during the roiling ’60s, SFU had its student demonstrations, its quotient of radical organizers. Today most are retired boomers, no longer on the barricades. But in those days, demonstrations and demonstrators were a sign that the enemy was at the gates – of the university, that is.
So the RCMP, ever attuned to the trends of the day, began surveillance of, among many other groups, students and their campus organizations. I quote from Steve Hewitt’s Beaver article of August/September 2002, “Spying Goes to College,” written in the fresh aftermath of 9/11.
“The list of materials passed on to Ottawa in 1970 included… an assessment of the Canadian University Press, a mention of Marxism at the University of Waterloo, a report about an SFU history-student organization, derisive comment about an all-female student executive at Brandon University [!], and descriptions of the formation of a Jewish student group at SFU and a gay organization in Vancouver.”
I’m telling you this because that “Jewish student group” was us: my husband and I, along with a few Jewish SFU students and some other friends who wanted to enhance their knowledge of Judaism, Zionism and social justice. God knows what the Mounties made of our meetings, or how they even knew about them.
Hewitt’s article chronicles the decades in which the RCMP and the Canadian government assiduously pursued what they felt were dangers to Canada from below, including student conspiracies they believed would undermine, if not overthrow, the established order. What was at the base of all this? Only slowly did it become apparent that the enemy, as Pogo said, was often us.
Now, in 2015, we have fresh anxiety. Our emotions have been stirred by events of the past weeks: deaths in Paris; arrests in Canada of suspected or avowed jihadist cells; and accusations and the creeping fear that, once again, Jews in Europe face a rise in anti-Jewish attacks. Can it happen here?
In Canada, two soldiers have died, although it’s pretty clear the men who killed in Ottawa and Quebec were mentally unstable, and had, if anything, used the Internet to turn themselves into radicals. They weren’t “turned” by fiery local imams, but by their own mental anguish.
This might have triggered a call for better mental health treatments, but no.
Never mind that recent arrests of alleged terrorists came because current laws produced their capture. We’re told we need new ones, even more intrusive and stripped of the protections we expect as citizens of a democracy. Yes, we need the government to protect us from those who wish us harm, but we also need to trust the democratic processes guaranteed by law.
Do we teeter now on the edge of decisions we may regret, such as passing more and more laws that attempt to protect us from every conceivable (and some not-so-likely) terror attacks? Ottawa has reportedly spent $1 billion just on a security building in Ottawa. Many more billions will be spent on security services.
Are we so fearful that we will easily give up any sense of protection from the mistakes that zealous security agents can make that we will override common sense?
Since 9/11, the United States has barricaded itself behind growing security walls, ever more intrusive and constitutionally precarious. Like our sister to the south, is Canada ready to toss overboard freedoms and protections that we hold as the right of citizens living in a democracy?
Our government should be more than a fence keeping us from attacking each other. It should be dispenser of justice – surely the higher honour.
Or is this just an election ploy? That would be cynical beyond belief.