We’ve been here before. On September 11, 2001, the triumphal optimism inspired by the Soviet Union’s collapse — the so-called End of History — came to a crashing halt in a whiplash inversion of the traditional balance between security and civil liberties.
Although it wasn’t obvious at the time, Canada participated at least as enthusiastically as the United States in this ‘new normal’, despite not having suffered a terror attack on home soil. The initial shock of the attack was quickly replaced with an enormous resolve to fix the problem of terrorism by — first — protecting ourselves at home and — second — by reducing the external threat by ‘spreading democracy’ and free markets around the world. Then came Iraq and Afghanistan, and initial enthusiasm curdled into a much grimmer and pessimistic world view — fostered in part by increased American isolationism and a sclerotic economy hobbled by the crushing weight of a costly security ethic in both Canada and the United States.
…Canadians want to see their leaders re-think their reliance on military and security-oriented approaches to the terrorist threat, in favour of approaches more in keeping with our core values as a nation.
It’s no accident that this period saw a shift in narrative from the End of History to the End of Progress — what Tyler Cowan called the ‘Age of Stagnation’. The revenue shortfall between NAFTA’s first decade and it’s second (post 9/11) was an almost imponderable two trillion dollars. Much, if not all of this, can be linked to the corrosive costs of the security decade combined with the massive price tag of misadventures in the greater Middle East. Most Canadians now see those missions as having failed completely.
As the second decade of the 21st century unfolded, the stranglehold which the security ethic had on North America began to relax somewhat. In Canada, that weakening of the security ethic was even more pronounced. What’s notable about the chart below is how the high-profile threats posed by ISIS, Ebola and Russian actions in Ukraine initially ramped up Canadians’s tendency to see the world as a dangerous place. Last week’s attack on Parliament Hill will doubtless send that trendline up further but, as in the past, we can expect to see it return to a downward path fairly shortly.
Consider, for example, what our polling has to say about the trade-off between increased police powers and civil liberties. The pattern is dramatic. The overwhelming lean towards providing further powers to police underwent a 180-degree shift. The public suddenly felt that past adventures with enhanced anti-terror powers were ineffectual, perhaps even counterproductive.
Also, the relative status of security and terror dropped down somewhat in Canadians’ hierarchy of concerns.
In other words, Canadians were telling us earlier this year they were ready to move on from the post-9/11 climate. While it’s not as clear with the American public, the Canadian public seemed ready to shift to a more balanced outlook, one which recognized that there’s no such thing as a ‘zero-risk’ environment and that some of the things we’d done in the interest of safety may have magnified risk and damaged the basic freedoms which underpin the miracle of late-twentieth century liberal capitalism in North America.
So what now? For starters, we feel we need to remind Canadians and their politicians that our first instincts in these affairs are nearly always wrong. Outrage and fear are a powerful goads; a rational admonition to wait and reflect inevitably will be rejected in such circumstances. It’s important to remember that what people are feeling today isn’t necessarily what they’ll feel in the foreseeable future — but we have to be accountable to that future Canada for decisions we make now in a climate of horror and anger.
A few key points:
- Virtually all responses made by Western governments to the threat of terrorism in the 21st century have been deemed failures in hindsight. Almost universally, the public sees these past interventions as having yielded nothing but a more dangerous world.
- Overwhelmingly, Canadians want to see their leaders re-think their reliance on military and security-oriented approaches to the terrorist threat, in favour of approaches more in keeping with our core values as a nation.
- Canadians have lost faith in the security agenda which says the problem can solved by restricting civil liberties even further, and want to see our leaders place more emphasis on the traditional tools of diplomacy and development.
The message here for politicians is clear: Fear passes, values endure. If recent history is any guide, Canadians of the near future will hold us to account for any decisions we make now which further erode civil liberties, personal freedoms and economic productivity in the interest of safety.
Re-published in arrangement with iPolitics.ca