Two weeks ago Monday, following the tragic events of Boston, CTV interviewed Tom Ridge as part of their coverage. Now Ridge is the former Secretary of Homeland Security, and aside from being the first man to hold that title and helping to manage the largest re-organization of the U.S. government in its history, his tenure in that post was largely unremarkable.
But Ridge, and this is how I took his appearance on the news, is a symbol of the immediate reaction post-9/11, a reminder that sweeping action was taken without a lot of thought about the consequences following a terrorist attack on American soil. Looking back on those events, it's easy to see where things might have gone wrong, and where other things might have gone too far, which is why it's a relief that any kind of visceral and emotional overreaction has been avoided - for the most part.
The somewhat muted public reaction played in stark contrast with the media picture, which was Chick Little-ism at its finest. Although an initial concern of further plots seemed plausible - and from what we've heard about the interogation of the surviving suspect, justified - but really there were signs from the start that this wasn't plotting on a grand scale.
As soon as the media started publishing details of the device, it seemed obvious that anyone with an internet connection, access to a hardware store and the ability to follow instructions could have built those bombs; which are, after all, the same kind of accumens you need to build a bird house. And the fact that the suspects were still in the Boston area four days after the bombing doesn't actually yield to the perception of them being criminal masterminds. In other words, they're criminals, and not very good ones at that. If they weren't Muslim, and they weren't bombers, and if they hadn't of planted those bombs at a high profile event like the Boston Marathon, they probably wouldn't have made the police blotter, let alone the front page.
When looking at the events of the last couple of weeks, one can't help but immediately think of the media (over-) reaction. Whether it was mistaking a fire for a third bomb, misreporting an arrest of a suspect, publishing the picture of innocent men and inferring their guilt on the front page of a major newspaper, or falling over each other over every morsel of news as the police closed in the actual suspects, the media proved that in a crisis, there wasn't a pitch that they wouldn't swing at. Worse still, there wasn't a lot of remorse for when they got it wrong.
For instance, New York Post publisher Rupert Murdoch made no apologies for that cover tweeting, "All NYPost pics were those distributed by FBI. And instantly withdrawn when FBI changed directions." Mudoch may pass the buck to the Bureau, but those guys had the dagger swing precariously over their head for a whole day as the eronious Post cover stayed on the stand, they're lives could have been ruined. I mean, it's not like anyone ever saw their personal and professional reputation go up in flames after the false accusation of being a terrorist bomber, right? Besides everything from today's paper is instantiously erased from the collective memory with the publication of tomorrow's paper, right? After all, the Post didn't actually say that those two guys were suspects.
But the media's crimes in reporting are not new to the Boston bombing case, neither is the new dimension the case has taken a week after in the right-wing press. Fox News anchors and pundits were falling over each other to decide what portions of the U.S. Constitution they wanted to suspend, amend, or outright erase in the wake of Boston. More broadly, many in the media wondered if there were any new security measures that needed to be looked in order to ensure that something like this never happened again: more surveillence, more police, more background checks, etc. But really, isn't the relatively quick indenitifcation and capture of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhor Tsarnaev a vindication of the current state of law enforcement? And if we're going to debate the merrits of a surveillence state, could be at least entertain the notion that we might already be living in one?
This was a question that occured to me. We've been so worried for years about "Big Brother" taking over, but in an age when cameras are in every phone and everything is shared instantly on social media (there's even a website called "Instagram" for crying out loud) we need to admit that maybe, without knowing it, we've embraced Big Brother, and it turns out that we are him. Or he is us.Yes, we may breathe a side of relief that the Tsarnaevs are off the street, but now, more than ever, we might need to start asking, "At what cost?" on a daily basis.
That question should be at the forefront of the minds of Canadians, now that we've passed newly minted anti-terror legistlation. The timing was particular, exactly one week after the Boston Bombing, S-7, the somewhat comically named Combating Terrorism Act, came up in the House of Commons for its important third reading. Till this week it had been going through the law-making process at a snail's pace, but because two small-timers got lucky this suddenly moved to the front burner. Your initial gut reaction maybe to shrug and bow to the necessity of the occasion, but amongst the treats in S-7 are the right for the police to detain Canadians for three days without charge, and throw you in prison for a year if you refuse to testify.
"We have to ensure that the evil-doers are met with the justice they deserve, otherwise we as parliamentarians have failed our most basic duty: to protect Canadians," said Candice Bergen, parliamentary secretary for public safety doing her best impression of Ari Fleischer on 9/12/2001.
But if one coincidence was enough to cast suspicion on the timing, maybe two would seal the deal. On Monday, the RCMP announced the arrest of Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, two men accused of planning an "al Qaeda-supported" plot to derail a train. So immediate was the threat that it only took the Mounties a year to act on the tip after it came in. Also, did they mention that this was a plot supported by al Qaeda with Iran's seal of approval? Forget the fact that al Qaeda is Sunni and Iran is Shiite - and one would have thought that lesson had been learned after that "adventure" in Iraq - but I guess it's like when movie studios put a "From the producer of..." on an ad, the government thinks it adds this terrorist plot a touch of prestige to suggest that this is a Iran/al-Qaeda co-production, especially since the plot itself is taken straight from Snidely Whiplash playbook.
Now I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories unless they're key to the plot of a Dan Brown book or Grant Morrison's seminal comic series The Invisibles, but there's something here that just doesn't pass the proverbial smell test. I'm not to say that the government lined all this up to give themselves a justification, and really, does it even serve as a justification? If these guys are as bad as we're meant to believe, then doesn't this prove that the system, as it stands right now, works fine without any added security measures?
What really needs to be learned from the last week's wall-to-wall terrorism news though is that while the topic still stirs such strong memories of truly dark days, you're more likely to die in about a dozen different, much more mundane ways before you're likely to die in a terrorist attack. In the last 30 years, only 3,400 Americans died in terrorist attacks, 75 per cent of whom died in one terrorist attack in particular, while nearly one million people died in gun-related deaths over the same period. Or more myopically, look the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West Texas, which killed four times the number of people that were killed in Boston, but received about four per cent of the press.
The meaning behind all this is two-fold. Number one is we need to widen our scope. Why was so much media power concentrated in Boston last week? Why were even Canadian networks going 24/7 on the manhunt last Friday? Was there no other news in Canada? Was there not a state of emergency declared in Neskantaga, a Native reserve where 20 people in a community of 400 have attempted suicide in the last year, seven of them successfully? Maybe the CBC could have spared an extra person from Boston to go to northern Ontario and do some reporting of genuine consequence to Canadians.
And that leads to the other thing, we need to confine terrorism to it's original definition. Terrorism isn't something that's ever going to go away. As long as their are people angry enough to take out their sociological, political, ethnic, and religious frustrations out through violence against innocent people, there's always a chance of terrorism. It's a tactic, not a person, place or thing to be defeated, and it's use is not limited to Islamic youths. America has committed terrorism at times throughout it's existence. Guerrilla fighters during the Revolutionary War, Sherman's March to the Sea during the Civil War, the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could all be described as acts of terror, meant to scare an enemy into giving up the fight.
The goals of those fights might have been more ambitious, and more noble, than those of two Boston malcontents, but if there's to be a global war on terror, it should truly be a global effort, and he should delicate ourselves to try and understand what drives people to such horror rather than be passive witnesses to it. And that context has been sorely lacking in the last couple of weeks.