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.