Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wars, Freedom and Liberty

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, and a particularly solemn one in light of the tragic murders of two soldiers on Canadian soil. It was also an awkward one for the Harper Government as veterans and their families regain their voices and increasingly speak out about the glaring disconnect between Harper's vision of Canada as a proud military power and how poorly his government looks after our old soldiers who now need and deserve our care and assistance.

With the centenary of the First World War being commemorated this year, it is rightly a time for reflections on that terrible war that cost 16 million lives with millions of others returning home terribly wounded. We do a disservice to the causes and effects of the Great War by repeating the simplistic history Harper and others put forward about what that war was about.

At the time WWI was touted as "The Great War For Civilization" and "freedom" and "liberty" were rallying cries for the Allies to continue to feed the horrific meat grinder of the battlefields of Europe. While "The Great War For Civilization" now sounds a little over the top, yesterday's Remembrance Day services did repeatedly keep referring to WWI being a war for freedom and liberty.

Modern scholarship, like Margaret MacMillan's wonderful book "The War That Ended Peace", explains the complexities of the beginning of WWI and the motivations behind the relentless stumbling towards conflict.

What World War One was not was a war of conquest. Except perhaps Austria-Hungary's ambitions in the small Balkan states, the rest of the war wasn't about a land grab in Europe. Unlike the Second World War when Hitler intended to add to Germany and create puppet states around it, World War One was expected to be a short military fight to "clear the air" and then everyone would go home. It was Bismarck's "diplomacy by other means" - a bloody nose to teach France and/or Russia a lesson and take them down a peg. Germany asked Belgium permission to travel through on its way to fight France and invaded when it was told no. It also tried to assure England that it had no interest in staying in France and hoped England would stay out of the fight while they sorted it out between them, which England seemed to have considered.

Except for swapping some African colonies and perhaps occupying part of ever-troublesome Serbia, no one was interested in having their flag fly permanently over a foreign country during WWI.

So when a hundred years later politicians still describe WWI as a war of freedom and liberty, it wasn't in the same sense as World War Two, when a truly evil government was bent on conquest and enslavement. No one wants an invading army in your country, and everyone rightly wants them to leave, but the Kaiser was no Hitler and he wasn't looking to enslave anyone. He was an immature, vain and short-sighted leader whose actions (along with others) led to war, but he wasn't at war to spread an ideology or make Germany bigger. It was a war about access to markets and raw materials and the personal rivalries of royal cousins, their generals and politicians.

Fighting for freedom and liberty? Certainly not in the sense that World War II was. World War One was a tragic and misguided conflict, but to repeat that countless men and women died in WWI for freedom is hardly true in any meaningful sense, especially compared to other conflicts that were about conquest or imposing an ideology on another country. Tellingly, WWI German war propaganda also told their soldiers that they were fighting for freedom ("Freiheit") as well.

As for "The Great War for Civilization", Germany, France, Austria and England were all at the height of their "civilization" before 1914. The war - although fought on both sides with barbaric ferocity - was not about anyone's desire to destroy civilization. The "barbaric Hun" was a useful wartime propaganda tool, but didn't reflect the sophistication of their pre-war society.

A hundred years later politicians who revel in a resurgent militarism repeat these tired phrases long since discredited, because no one will fight for corporate economic interests or the vanity of politicians, but you can still make people fight for freedom and liberty.

None of this takes away from the tragedy and sacrifice of the common soldier who inevitably pays the price for war, or our duty to remember the fallen. We simply owe it to them and future generations to be honest about what they made the ultimate sacrifice for and not hide it behind a false politician's slogan of "freedom and liberty".

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Dean Del Mastro & Harper's Hobson's Choice

A convicted but noisily defiant Dean Del Mastro suddenly resigned as a Member of Parliament today.

Two days ago he was telling the world that he would go to the gates of hell trying to reopen his case after being convicted but before sentencing for what his press release called "fresh evidence". We haven't seen his "fresh evidence", but it appears it is some Elections Canada evidence that was disclosed at or before trial, but Dean and his legal eagles decided to roll the dice on it and didn't feel they needed to ask for an adjournment to review or contest.

But today Dean changed his tune from defiant and fight to the last breath, to resign immediately with what passes for political dignity. In his 15 minute resignation speech in the House of Commons today, Del Mastro was still defiant, defensive, self-congratulatory and expressed his undying love for the Conservative Party.

The Conservatives rewarded him with two things. First a standing ovation from the Government benches, which is odd for someone just convicted of willfully committing electoral fraud. Second, a proposed amendment yesterday from Conservative MP Tom Lukiwksi, parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, amending the MPs' pension forfeiture rule that would limit the new rule to a specific list of criminal offences, coincidentally excluding a conviction under the Canada Elections Act.

So, Dean would get to keep his pension.

Harper was on the horns of a dilemma with Del Mastro's conviction on three courts of violating the Canada Elections Act, the most important of which was not the overspending, but the deliberate attempt to cover it up. The Canada Elections Act says clearly that anyone convicted of these offences is automatically stripped of their seat in the House of Commons and prohibited from running or holding office for 5 years. Parliament controls its own affairs, and Harper has in the past hidden behind a sympathetic and compliant Speaker and his majority to thumb his nose at everything up to and including being found in contempt of parliament - the only time it has ever happened in the Commonwealth.

Harper hates the courts and is determined to make sure Parliament (ie: Harper) is firmly placed above the courts. For him to implement a decision of the courts and Elections Canada regarding Del Mastro, his former parliamentary secretary and Ethics Committee member, would be to acknowledge the courts' authority over him. Not going to happen.

The other half of Harper's Hobson's choice was whether to kick out Del Mastro or not. If he kept him, he would have to fight the real observation that he was harbouring a convicted election cheat. If he kicked Del Mastro out, not only was he caving to the courts, but he was sending a lesson to the faithful that even his loyal foot soldier and attack dog would go under the bus when necessary. And there is no telling who the dog would bite once off the leash.

So in a remarkable about face, today Dean Del Mastro resigned his seat, still singing the praises of the Conservative Party.

What changed? His pension for one. One can imagine a scenario where Del Mastro was told by the PMO short pants brigade that if forced to make a decision, Harper would be forced to have his Conservative caucus vote him out of his seat, pensionless. In fact yesterday Peter van Loan - one of Harper's replacement attack dogs - indicated that the Conservatives might be forced to vote him out of the Commons and might not be able to protect his pension.

Unless - I'm guessing - Dean spares Harper the embarrassment of either keeping him or caving into the court and dismissing him through a vote.  In return, Dean keeps his pension (and possibly some unspecified token of future gratitude) and a small scrap of his dignity

Suddenly, defiant Dean turns on a dime and changes his tune and resigns full of love and praise for his (former) Conservative colleagues. He has fallen on his sword in return for keeping his pension and a farewell speech and Harper can scuttle off to China while the whole thing blows over.

Del Mastro's motion to reopen will go no where - at the best of times it's a rarity and what he complains of being "fresh evidence" is in reality a tactical mistake by him at trial - and any appeal is likewise doomed to failure.

In the meantime Harper has dodged a bullet and Dean keeps his pension after likely having had it explained to him that it was that or being hung out to dry by his own people with nothing to show for it.

Plus a standing ovation from the people who ordered him to walk the plank.

Ain't love grand?

Dean Del Mastro - definitely not a Conservative

Friday, October 31, 2014

Terrorism or Just Terror?

I was back on Sun News yesterday to talk about whether Justin Trudeau would recognize the Ottawa shootings as "terrorism". Apparently it is a big deal on the right to say the actual word. Mulcair has so far refused to brand the Ottawa shooter a terrorist, and frankly that's fine with me. Between my being asked to comment and showing up at the studio Justin Trudeau took the wind out of their sails and said that the Ottawa attack was indeed terrorism. Sad faces all round at a gotcha moment denied.

I tried to start my conversation with Pat Bolland with my view that the terrorist/not terrorist talk is really a "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" question. It's pure semantics. From a Criminal Code definition perspective, the Ottawa shootings met that definition of terrorism - it is serious violence against the government for a political agenda. A finer point that may only appeal to the lawyers in the crowd is whether the shooter's mental state was capable of forming the requisite intent - i.e. - was he so nuts that the terrorist intent can't be rationally formed by him. It's an academic question that is of no comfort to their victims, but we'll never know. Clearly he - as in the other recent killers of soldiers and RCMP officers - had mental issues.

One point I tried to make is that there is no evidence we've seen that these were "directed attacks" by some terrorist organization. There's no structure or coordination to them, no funding or planning by a terrorist group. Just "lone wolf" attacks by mentally fragile people who have embraced their own skewed version of a violent fundamentalist religious movement with a grudge against authority for their crappy lives. They were "radicalized" by online videos and materials that seemed to speak to them and give their failing lives meaning and purpose. If you haven't read the old classic by Eric Hoffer "The True Believer", you should. It deals with the psychology of certain people susceptible to radical ideologies of the left, right and religion and how fanaticism fills a void in their lives. These are lost souls who find something simple and extreme to cling onto and an enemy to blame, often with tragic results.

The commentator on Sun TV before me talked about how "90% of the Muslim youth he had met were already radicalized." That's just nonsense. There are moderate Muslims by the truckload, but they can be afraid to speak up and make targets of themselves from both sides. Demonizing them as a group drives them further away. The fear mongers are desperate to spin these tragedies into something bigger because it feeds two agendas - the "law and order" security agenda, and the xenophobic anti-Islam agenda. That's why they want to label it "terrorism", because that's a big and emotional bedsheet to hide behind.

Terrorism of course exists. It has existed as long as there have been institutions to rebel against. ISIS is a particularly terrible group and is more than happy to "inspire" terrorist wannabes anywhere in the world with a few cheap YouTube videos and a call for jihadists to come join them in their miserable local war. That, however, seems to be the limit of their international ambitions, with the caveat that anyone who stands in the way of that goal is also considered a fair target. It is not a coincidence that the Ottawa shooter was set off allegedly by being blocked from leaving Canada to join them. It was when he was separated from his heart's desire that his amorphous rage turned towards Parliament Hill.

You can justify all kinds of things in the name of fighting terror that you can't in a rational crusade for better mental health funding. You can extend the reach into people's lives if it is terrorism, but not if it is the frustratingly unpredictable lives of people suffering for severe mental illnesses. Labelling actions as occurred in Ottawa and Quebec terrorism gives us the illusion that we can confront and control it, when the reality is we can't. Both killers were well known to the RCMP and still the tragedies came as a surprise. We already have ample legislation on the books - too ample in my opinion - to deal with terrorists, criminals and their enthusiasts.

As I started to mention on Sun TV, for anyone who has lived with mental illness in friends and family, you know how unpredictable it can be. With the best care and supervision, people can still behave erratically and even violently. Add a radical belief to it (and extreme religiosity is often a symptom of mental illness) and you have people who are unpredictably dangerous. How often have you heard the expression "he was quiet, polite, and kept to himself" used to describe someone who had just tragically gone off the rails? Legislation and even enforcement are largely incapable of dealing with it because of its very nature.

But these things are nuance, and the difference between "terrorism" and "Terrorism" with a capital "T" is not one many people want to make in the wake of a tragedy, especially if it feeds a law and order and security agenda already in place and looking for traction.