My own political beliefs exist at a curious point, relative to many people I know. My thoughts on Wednesday's attack in Ottawa demonstrate that more clearly than anything else (even my contrarian focus on violent attacks on innocent Jewish people around the world during Operation Protective Edge). What I had been afraid was the case turned out to be so, and I think some of my earlier predictions seem to have come true.
In his reaction to the violence, Prime Minister Harper hinted that he would speed up and perhaps also strengthen legislation he had planned to give Canadian police and military even more powers to spy on citizens with impunity and restrict people’s movements, as well as expanding our role in extraordinary rendition (yes, this practice continues) and collusion with foreign security agencies who torture prisoners. It’s exactly the wrong reaction to take, simply doubling down on universal surveillance and expanding police powers, treating citizens as suspects.
Yet my country’s houses of parliament now have bullet holes in them. It makes sense for there to be more armed guards in Canada’s centre of government to help protect elected and institutional officials. But further expanding and empowering a security apparatus (let alone also doubling down on a dodgy military intervention in a war whose sides are fractally sectarian) is not a rational response to a serious incident like this. Our security politics should be much more nuanced than this if we are to preserve the fundamental elements of personal freedom that our democratic culture needs.
While the attack was a shock, it did not come from nowhere. The perpetrator, Michael Zehaf Bibeau, was in all the usual parameters, a lone wolf spree killer: a man with a troubled past, few if any prospects for a dignified life, and severe bouts of mental illness, he developed a violent fixation and eventually acted on it. Complicating matters was the content of his fixation, as he had apparently planned to join ISIS. He had gone to Ottawa for a passport to travel to the Middle East, becoming one of several Canadians who had already joined that army.
A lone madman, or a terrorist acting on the Caliphate’s call to arms? Apparently, Zehaf-Bibeau was both. As a personality, we should be able to dismiss him as an isolated madman. But he was not isolated; the politics of our era spurred him to unforgivable violence.
American commentators discuss Canada’s “loss of innocence.” But as my old friend from university and current QMI reporter Sheena Goodyear wrote, Canada isn’t exactly innocent. Although such shocking violence is a more rare affair in Canada than the United States, we do suffer from it: the Air India bombing, the Montréal Massacre (an event explicitly evoked in a recent threat of mass violence against a video game critic in Utah), a school shooting in Alberta, Mayerthorpe, and a gunman running amok in Moncton this year.
The real lack of innocence that concerns me is the tendency on the left, in the name of anti-imperialism, to imply that attacks against Western centres of political power are justified, or at least that we have it coming. I am against Western intervention in the war against ISIS, largely because our armies don’t do anything in Middle East conflicts except make a horrifyingly complex and deadly war even worse.
What is now ISIS was once the most hardcore element of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that arose to fight the United States’ military occupation of that country, an occupation that was defined by incompetence by state armies and horrifying acts of abuse, violence, and murder of the civilian population by mercenary armies (that is, Blackwater) for which none have ever been called to account on returning to America.
Our current behaviour is little better: our drone strikes, to take the most outrageous single example, are so frequent in some areas of Yemen and Pakistan that we’ve made children afraid of blue skies. A drone strike is empirically a horrifying and scarring experience. They fly too high to see and their missiles travel too fast for any sign to reach you before impact. You may just be standing by a shopping centre talking with your friend about a local sports team, or an annoying mutual friend. Then the shopping centre explodes, and you’re perforated with shrapnel of metal, stone, and flesh. This violence must end.
However, we aren’t imperialists anymore. Canada and the United States individually use their state security and intelligence institutions to interfere and meddle in the politics of other countries for our own vague interests (usually resulting in direct harm to whatever interests on whose behalf we were interfering). We’re condescending, idiotic, meddling stumblers incapable of the self-reflection at the level of our political leadership necessary to start untangling ourselves from the webs of international military violence into which we’ve fallen.
We are trapped in a situation of quid pro quo, tit for tat, and any other suggestively named exchange of smacks you care to think of. Western powers have been interfering with territories, nations, and countries predominantly inhabited by Muslims for centuries, ever since European foreign policies consisted of actually invading and conquering these lands. Resistance to the violence and racism of actual state-centric colonialism of conquest has extended to the faux-colonialism of military meddling and institutionalizing economic unfairnesses.
The character of exploitation has changed radically: not enough people on the radical left understand this shift (from what Edward Said would call imperialism to what Antonio Negri calls empire). The decentralized global economy behaves more like a network than ever before, as Westphalian-model biopolitical states no longer exclusively dominate political activity. They are powerful, but only one type of actor in a more level (and therefore more chaotic) playing field.
To think as though states are the only actors in the networks of oppression in which our people and individual soldiers are ensnared is inadequate to the situation. Most importantly from my perspective, it lets ISIS (as well as Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Iranian government, etc) off the hook without moral accountability. Too much discourse on the radical left is afraid to make the most radical step and denounce all violence. The legacy of colonialism forces us to admit that violent revolution is inevitable in the overthrow of an oppressive regime. The revered Nelson Mandela had people necklaced, you know.
But we can’t take a one-sided view, in dissent, of a conflict, as too much rhetoric allows. The fact that we have to defend ourselves as merely trying to understand the motives of our enemies instead of actually sympathizing with them betrays not only how anything short of bloodthirsty patriotism in response to acts like the would-be massacre that murdered only Nathan Cirillo is perceived in the wider culture, but how we dissenters understand ourselves.
Framing all violent resistance to the horrific acts of Western state militaries lets all revolutionaries claim the same nobility that few deserve. In opposing the military violence of our own countries, and focussing exclusively in arguing against our own leaders, we commit the ethical lapse of granting explicitly genocidal groups like ISIS or Hamas moral high ground by omission from our accusatory gazes.
There is only one ethically and morally sane way out of this conundrum. It’s the most radically idealistic, utterly insane and impractical stance of all. It’s the only one I can take in good conscience. I’ll sound stupid, naïve, like a babbling political idiot. I’d have said the same thing myself about this sentiment ten years ago. In fact, I did. But now, it’s all I can say.
End all this violence. Everyone. Now.