Perfect Security

A while back, I was at a little cove with our dog, Ripley. Ripley loves being in the water. He especially likes trolling around like Gollum, watching for any movement on the water surface – little sticks, or bugs, or bubbles. And often, when he spies a likely target, he lunges at it and tries to bite it. This sudden movement in the water invariably sends up a spray of droplets. And when those droplets plunge back down into the water again, they make a little splash. Ripley sees that splash and, thinking it could be another deserving target, he lunges again. And again. And again.

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Arnold Wolfers was an old-school scholar of international relations. He wrote a bunch of great stuff, but many of the young academics being churned out by grad schools these days wouldn’t even know he existed. And if they did, many would turn up their noses and dismiss him as “just another realist.” Well, one of the things he wrote about is the ambiguous nature of national security. He argued that some states will establish forward bases and security zones in an attempt to secure their values and interests. After a very short while, those bases themselves become interests that need to be protected. And so the state extends another ring of bases and security measures to protect them. And again. And again. As Wolfers phrases it, “Pushed to its logical conclusion, such spatial extension of the range of values does not stop short of world domination.”

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Kafka wrote an amazing short story about a burrowing creature. This creature is afraid of potential enemies, both those who might find his hidden entrance and invade his warren from the surface, as well as those subterranean foes who might burrow their way into his lair. In order to keep himself safe from these predators, the creature has hollowed out an elaborate and complex series of tunnels and chambers. While he would like to relax more, and perhaps spend more time resting and munching on tasty morsels from his vast store of food, he is unable to unwind. He has started to hear noises whistling and echoing off the walls of his tunnels. He convinces himself that the noises are caused by the breathing and digging of his enemies as they invade his home and hunt for him. He concocts new plans and sets about digging new tunnels. Ultimately, the creature becomes trapped by his own angst and paranoia. The menacing noises of his approaching enemies are really just the echoing sounds of his own frantic digging and the rush of blood in his head from his sustained physical exertions. The pattern repeats itself. Again. And again.

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In an age of terror, we have raised up a vast and sprawling architecture of surveillance and police power and military might. And we like to think that these forces are harnessed to ensure our security. But their very operation creates new enemies where there were none. And their focus, inevitably it seems, eventually boomerangs to settle on a domestic target, looking for quislings and fifth columnists in our midst.

Perfect security is a myth. But more than that, the effort to achieve perfect security plays a counterintuitive trick on us and leaves us broken and vulnerable. The more we set about trying to insulate ourselves from all threats, the more insecure we become.

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“No greater friend in the world than Canada”

With the launching of Israel’s ground war in Gaza, the latest chapter in the ongoing tragedy of Israeli-Palestinian relations is headed in an increasingly deadly and destructive direction. Throughout this downward spiral, Canada’s diplomatic response has been consistent. The government has been unwavering in its support for Israel. This is not new. Under the current Conservative government, Canada has been steady and forthright in its unambiguous backing of Israel’s position. In a representative example of this enduring loyalty, the country’s foreign minister recently declared, without a hint of hyperbole, that “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.”

The rhetorical foundation upon which the government bases its support for Israel is moral in nature. That is to say, the official justification for Canada’s position is premised, publicly and emphatically, on declarations of moral certainty. And there is little doubt that many Canadians support their government’s stance on Israeli-Palestinian affairs precisely because of its “moral clarity” and its rejection of “moral relativism.”

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In the aftermath of 9/11, political leaders in the United States quickly came to understand the terrorist attacks through a moral-metaphysical framework.* Within this framework, the complex historical and political roots of that terrible act of violence were reduced to something akin to cartoon villainy. US President George W Bush spoke incessantly of “evil people” and “evil folks.” His rhetoric promised a “crusade,” and he pledged to “rid the world of the evil-doers.”

There was perhaps a brief window of opportunity when a more nuanced understanding of the roots of the 9/11 attacks might have found purchase. For a few days after September 11th, some Americans were earnestly asking the question, “Why do they hate us?” However, Bush’s simplistic explanation of 9/11 rendered serious reflection entirely impossible. Once the “good versus evil” frame was invoked, references to “root causes” were invariably met with scorn and accusations of insensitivity or disloyalty. As a consequence, the only answer that ultimately achieved traction in response to “Why do they hate us?” was the simplistic, nonsensical and self-serving canard, “They hate our freedoms.”

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We should be suspicious of simple narratives about the world and about ourselves. Such stories are dangerous, especially when they come drenched in righteous indignation and pre-packaged with “common sense” claims of moral clarity. They are problematic for multiple reasons, but three stand out.

First, their lack of realism and complexity make it too easy for us to cast ourselves in the role of the hero. Consider, for example, Bush’s narrative about 9/11. In the epic quest to vanquish the evil-doers, it was obvious and unquestioned that the United States would play the role of the lawman, the caped crusader, the agent of civilization and metaphysical good. Seeing ourselves as the embodiment of all that is “good” and “right” robs us of the capacity for critical self-reflection.

Second, asserting a position of moral certainty makes it too easy to delegitimize or silence other perspectives. We see this dynamic playing out all the time. For example, Justin Trudeau found out speculating that the causes of terrorism are multiple and complex can be easily pilloried and dismissed as “committing sociology.” Worse, comments out of step with the narrative of moral certainty frequently invite accusations of moral relativism. Perhaps worst of all, when it comes to supporting the state of Israel, the high ground of moral absolutism is used to hurl specious charges of anti-Semitism down upon those asking questions or voicing dissent. While these kinds of attacks may be great for scoring partisan points, they create an environment that is obviously not suitable for debating and crafting Canada’s foreign policy.

Third, the self-righteous assurance of moral certainty makes it easy to dehumanize “the enemy.” And this has the tendency to enable some truly horrific kinds of government action. It was the moral certainty surrounding the evil-doers of 9/11 that led directly to a bloody war in Iraq, a global assault on personal privacy, the normalization of indefinite detention and torture, and an ongoing shadow war in which US military personnel are able to obliterate suspects without even getting out of their chairs.

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Despite a surplus of attempts to impose moral clarity on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the situation in Gaza is anything but simple and straightforward. It may indeed be tempting to believe otherwise, but this drawn-out tragedy has neither “good guys” nor “bad guys” in the classic sense. Indeed, the very notion of seeing this intractable dilemma in terms of simple explanations or simple solutions is absurd.

And yet, Canada’s reaction to the current crisis in Gaza embraces precisely this perspective.

On July 13, the Prime Minister released a brief statement on the worsening crisis. This official statement of Canadian policy was entirely strident and unapologetic in its one-sided support for Israel. Indeed, it made no meaningful mention of the broader situation facing Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The most striking takeaway message from the statement was this sentence:

“Canada calls on its allies and partners to recognize that these terrorist acts are unacceptable and that solidarity with Israel is the best way of stopping the conflict.”

This passage may seem harmless enough, but it prompts a few simple questions: Why would the Prime Minister assert “solidarity with Israel” as the most effective way to stop the crisis? Why not call on both sides to refrain from violence? Why not call for negotiation?

Viewed through this government’s rigid worldview, Israel is unequivocally framed as the “good guy.” In Stephen Harper’s moral framework, headwear does not come in different shades of grey; there are only white hats and black hats. And he sees the current situation as an opportunity for Israel to finally get rid of the black hats. Essentially, the Canadian government wants Israel to have a free hand to crush Hamas, regardless of the costs this would inevitably visit upon regular Palestinians. So, its one-sided call for “solidarity with Israel” is about preempting other governments. Stephen Harper is effectively running interference for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, working to dissuade European governments from interfering or pressuring Israel to show restraint. Ultimately, the goal of the Canadian government is to insulate the hawks in Israel from international criticism and outrage as the Palestinian body count inevitably rises.

As I said above, moral certainty gives license to governments to do unconscionable things.

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It is difficult to know how this ongoing crisis can be resolved. However, it will certainly require inspired and creative leadership to find a way forward, and in this sense it is clear that Stephen Harper can be of no assistance whatsoever. In this context, I think of Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. In the midst of her pain and sorrow, this grieving mother was able to find the compassion to denounce the revenge killing of a sixteen year old Palestinian boy:

“Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem — the shedding of innocent blood in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.”

This is a version of moral certainty that makes sense to me. Perhaps Stephen Harper should take some notes.

* Megoran, Nick. 2006. “God On Our Side: The Church of England and the Geopolitics of Mourning 9/11.” Geopolitics 11 (4): 561-579.