Democracy is most challenged when faced with a crisis. When times are good, it’s easy to guarantee all kinds of rights and freedoms, but it’s only when times are tough that those guarantees matter. As a third generation Japanese-Canadian who spent three years denied all rights of citizenship and incarcerated in camps with my Canadian-born parents, I feel a special responsibility to remind Canadians of the fragility of democratic ideals.
I was reminded of this in late 2001 when Americans were still reeling from the terrorist attacks. I spoke at an environmental conference in Buffalo and during the question period was asked what Canadians felt about Sept. 11. In my response, I pointed out the immediate and deeply felt outpouring of Canadian support and sympathy. An attack on the U.S. was felt like a personal attack on Canada. However, I also pointed out that shortly after taking office, President Bush announced that he was abandoning the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, would not support an international initiative to outlaw landmines and would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate. To hell with the rest of the world, America was out for itself. But immediately after 9-11, he called for the entire world to unite behind the U.S. in its fight against terrorism. “I don’t think you can have it both ways,” I suggested.
To my surprise, the response was very hostile. “You’ve got a lot of nerve,” I was told, “coming down here and telling us what to do.” “How dare you question the President of the United States in a time of crisis,” someone else chipped in. And so it went. In answering a question, I had dared to counter the show of solidarity that people seemed to feel was absolutely necessary. In the months that followed 9-11, President Bush exhorted the American people to stimulate the economy by doing their civic duty by buying stuff. And it seemed to work. The economy didn’t collapse and consumer spending picked up. Meanwhile, a compliant Congress handed over enormous powers to the President and his Cabinet that override rights of privacy, freedom of speech and equality before the law. And the media performed the role of cheerleader and propagandizer by feeding the fear and skewing news coverage.
Balanced budgets flew out the window when the U.S. carried out a devastating attack on Afghanistan, successfully ejecting the Taliban but failing to corner Osama bin Laden, and leaving behind a nation devastated by war and torn by internecine battles for power. Canada, which has long prided itself for its international peace-keeping role, pledged support for the American war effort. The next American move, now on Iraq, is, in my view, a concoction of a naked political agenda, oil interests and military influence.
On the eve of the first anniversary of Sept. 11, Prime Minister Chr?tien reflected that we in the industrialized world ought to realize that the incredible inequities between rich and poor nations engender envy and hatred which are the roots of terrorism. It was a very reasoned and thoroughly supportable suggestion. Amazingly, people like former prime minister Brian Mulroney immediately accused Chr?tien of being anti-American! Yet Chr?tien had specifically said “we in the developed world,” not “the Americans.” Bad enough to have such a knee-jerk, shallow response but far worse to base it on a misrepresentation. Now is when we need some thoughtful input, ideas that will take us out of the crude hawkish war rhetoric.
Under enormous pressure from the U.S. government and lobbyists for the military, our government has failed to seek extensive public input on this issue. For the sake of democracy, we need ideas that may be hard to take but stimulate discussion and make us look at things in a different way. I believe that poverty and the unacceptable inequities in distribution of wealth, both between and within countries, lie at the heart of violence and terror. If we value our country and ideals, we should be far less concerned with increasing already obscene levels of wealth and seek instead a world of greater equity that offers justice and security.