Eric Wright: Stephen Harper’s response to Ottawa shooting was appallingly uncivilized
The murder of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa on October 22 was an appalling tragedy for his family, friends, coworkers, and our country. Yet, an equally appalling facet of this tragedy is the hyperbolic rhetoric that has sprung up in its wake, particularly the words chosen by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons the day after the murder on Parliament Hill took place.
While addressing the House, the prime minister swiftly drew a connection between an incident in Quebec on October 20, where a runaway driver murdered one soldier, and the killing of Cpl. Cirillo to violent extremist movements in other parts of the world. Without citing evidence, he framed these two murders as part of an ongoing struggle our country faces, vowing to “take this fight to the terrorists on their own territory”. Prior to this vow, he characterized the world as “descending into savagery”, with Canada being one of the only islands of civilization left. In the House, the prime minister framed two isolated crimes committed in one country in the same week as an abstract attack on our civilization, democracy, and institutions without a shred of evidence or sober second thought.
In order to make the leap of logic from two murders committed in one country in one week to the abstract sociological notion of a battle of the civilized versus the savage, a reasonable person would want to first see evidence that those who committed the crimes understood their actions in this light. And most importantly, that the continuing threat our country faces manifested by these attacks is coordinated, imminent, and real, and therefore justifying of this extremely broad and powerfully motivating rhetoric. But, as in any police investigation, it will take time to determine the motives of those who committed the crimes, although there is certainly some initial evidence that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had become a religious extremist and struggled with addiction. To frame these two discrete murders as incidents in part of a worldwide struggle against savagery that our country faces without any evidence is an irresponsible and dangerous act by our country’s leadership in a time of crisis.
The prime minister’s choice of words in the House has begun the process of building a simple us versus them dichotomy. This type of language is effective for building consent amongst the population for new political actions and strategies that might be taken by the federal government, including additional military action. It instills a background level of fear into our politics that is corrosive of the critical thinking skills necessary for the function of democracy. Our leadership is beginning to sound a lot like the American administration after 9/11—and we all know how that turned out.
The way in which Harper divided the world into two stark camps and framed the actions of a few as part of a broad existential struggle is not a taboo political move—to be avoided no matter what. Rather, the leadership of our country should use this type of language very sparingly, and only when the threat is of a great and proven magnitude, with plenty of evidence to show. Dividing the world into two camps and making people afraid of the “other” is the most efficient way to ensure a society’s survival when the threat is real. However, when the threat is exaggerated or entirely fabricated, the use of this rhetoric is irresponsible, disrespectful to the families of those who were killed, and most likely evidence of political opportunism.
History is ripe with examples of political leaders who underestimate threats to their country and resist resorting to black and white language that would have motivated their citizens to take collective action. Pre-WWII British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s belief that he could negotiate with Adolf Hitler and his avoidance of creating a vilified perception of Germans amongst the British public is one of the 20th century’s best examples of a political leadership’s miscalculation about the graveness of a foreign threat and the rhetorical actions required to counter it.
Equally, there are plenty of examples where political leaders use attacks to push their misguided worldview or narrow agendas through invoking this type of language, responding in ways that worsen a situation rather than improve it. In 2003, American neoconservatives used the 9/11 attacks on New York to justify a disastrous attack on Iraq, which has created grave instability and suffering in that country.
Citizens in Canada must, when these moments of attack or crisis arise, be extra vigilant and incredibly skeptical of the wisdom and/or motives of our leadership as we witness them making the conscious choice to divide the world into two stark camps and interpret individual crimes as part of abstract civilizational struggles of survival.
We should however not be skeptical from the standpoint of a detached argument about how “simplistic” and intellectually untenable black and white worldviews are, but from a standpoint that evaluates the utility of invoking this language based solely on the facts. Was this an isolated incident? What were the motives? Is there any evidence of a coordinated conspiracy? Are we in any imminent civilizational danger as we’re being told? Most importantly, is our leadership taking calculated advantage of the situation, or perhaps, stumbling blindly forward toward policies that will only worsen the current situation? Finally, which pressing issues might we lose sight of if this lizard-brain and fear-instilling rhetoric comes to drive our society’s political energies?
The best honour and remembrance we can give to those who were murdered callously last week is to ensure our country’s response to their deaths is a truly civilized one. This means to investigate fully and learn the facts, draw conclusions based solely on evidence, and reject our leader’s use of soaring hyperbolic rhetoric that frames personal and family tragedies as civilizational struggles without the least bit of evidence that this is true and respond in a thoughtful way that aims to prevent further violence. The most important component of a civilized and thoughtful response is to investigate the motives of those who committed the crimes, and strategize dispassionately about how to prevent further tragedies from taking place. This is the best testament we can make as citizens to those were taken too soon from their friends and family.
Oct 27, 2014 at 12:07pm
Eric, baby, the Big Guy is fighting for his political future. Cut him a break already. The price of his life blood is down to $80/bbl and his missus is MIA (with a big stress on the 'A' part). Worst of all, Trudeau is going to clean Harper's clock on E Day and make his beat down of Brazeau look like a warmup handshake in comparison.
A little mercy for the master of manipulation, eh?
Oct 27, 2014 at 1:28pm
Unlike Boris Moris, I congratulate you on taking our PM to task on his language. It was wholly inappropriate and perpetuates a false narrative that justifies a dangerous agenda of further militarization abroad, domestic spying and increasingly violating civil liberties. None of which we should do and all of which are projects that undermine democracy and freedom (the antithesis of what their proponents say these measures do).
However, I would also like to point out that his use of the word "savagery" is highly problematic because of its colonial history (especially in this country) and that using civilized/uncivilized as a measure of judgement with his rhetoric is equally misguided. It perpetuates an 'othering' of people on the basis of an imposed ranking of 'savagery' or 'civilized-ness', which has horrible, imperialist roots and proven negative colonial and racialized implications. So while I agree with your general argument, I disagree with the use of this language as a way to take Harper to task for his (brutal) rhetoric.
Oct 27, 2014 at 1:37pm
No one ever accused a Neo-Con of originality. And hey, look - sweeping new powers followed right behind this hunk of propaganda. Who coul have seen that coming?
Oct 27, 2014 at 1:56pm
Thanks for posting some common sense in a world where its been in short supply.
I do wonder if this means Harper will claim Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while he denies it to Canadian veterans.
Oct 27, 2014 at 2:36pm
I agree with J that the use of "savagery" is evidence at just how blind the Prime Minister is to the racist and colonial history of our country. Should we be shocked at this use of language though? After all, this is a leader who callously dismissed the murder of Aboriginal woman Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg this summer as just another "crime" and argued it should not be viewed as part of a "sociological phenomenon." Incredibly, the murder of Cpl. Cirillo (the killers motives are still hazy) unleashes a torrent of civilizational threat rhetoric, invocations of our most sacred values, vague threats directed to other parts of the world, vague mentions of 'others' etc. yet a consistent and documented pattern of racial and sexual violence against aboriginal women in our country elicits a brutal dismissal and minimization of a true systemic issue: "it's just a crime." We must all work together to be better people than the conservatives believe us to be and vote them out of power in the next election.
Oct 27, 2014 at 2:38pm
Eric, I hope you can see that your use of this incident to score political points is way more appalling than anything Stephen Harper has done.
Oct 27, 2014 at 3:17pm
Why not address some of the points Wright brings up? Is simply questioning some of Harper's broad claims instantly some game of political point-scoring?
For instance, where is this evidence or proof that connects Bibeau to some sort of coordinated terrorist effort? Do you feel that Harper's broad claims should be taken at face value, as fact?
Oct 27, 2014 at 4:26pm
Totally agree with you. His track record with Aboriginal groups is appalling. I just think that if we are going to criticize him (and we should), we need to be careful about the language we use ourselves. The real issues with Harper's speech isn't that he was uncivilized and I disagree with framing them that way because it perpetuates that there are 'savage' and 'civilized' ways to act (which I mentioned above are buying into long standing linguistic traditions of colonialism and imperialism). It's that his rhetoric perpetuates war, racism, inequality, and silencing of Aboriginal issues, among many other things that deserve our scrutiny.
I am not shocked at his use of language, but that isn't really pertinent.
Oct 27, 2014 at 8:05pm
This illustrates why some people are leaders and others can only stand on the sidelines and complain. Wright's tortuous hand-wringing would have absolved Hitler as a troubled mind who was the product of insufficient social programs and housing. How shameful of Wright to use the murder of a patriot to launch a cheap political attack.
Oct 27, 2014 at 8:08pm
And how shameful of you to accuse someone of being a Hitler apologist and use the murder of a patriot to launch a cheap political attack.