RELIVING THE PAST

NOT IT'S SAFETY FIRST

Sept. 11 left us more willing to forfeit some liberties for the sake of security

ALLAN R. GREGG October 15 2001
RELIVING THE PAST

NOT IT'S SAFETY FIRST

Sept. 11 left us more willing to forfeit some liberties for the sake of security

ALLAN R. GREGG October 15 2001

NOT IT'S SAFETY FIRST

Sept. 11 left us more willing to forfeit some liberties for the sake of security

ALLAN R. GREGG

While the details of my activities on Sept. 11 may have differed from those of other Canadians, I doubt my emotions did. Disbelief turned to despair, fear for loved ones and finally a morbid desire to know more—to make sense of a senseless act. The natural response to uncertainty is a desire for closure. Our first-blush instinct of disorientation turned to a hard, cold demand for finality, for retribution; if those who had committed this crime were punished—better yet, annihilated-—then the source of our disquiet would be removed and we could return to our previous, blessed lives.

Over the past few weeks, we devoured any morsel of information we could lay our hands on, in the process learning more about the world around us than ever before. And, as we waited for war, we discovered that there was not going to be any quick and easy solution to our unease.

A quick scan of public opinion polls published since Sept. 11 underscores the trauma the terrorist attacks have wrought upon the North American population. Almost nine out of 10 Americans claim that the disaster marked the most tragic news event of their lives. Over two-thirds believe there is a continuing threat to their and their loved ones’ physical safety. In Canada, only slightly more than 10 per cent carry the same fear of terrorist attacks on our soil. Yet even having acknowledged that the attacks do not pose a clear and present danger to our nation, nearly eight out 10 Canadians say the tragedy has forever altered their lives.

Solid majorities in Canada and overwhelming ones in the United States were initially prepared to sacrifice lives, give up some civil liberties, hand broad powers to governments and, ultimately, “go to war” in order to eradicate the source of their horror. Since then, citizens from both countries still hold these views, but their desire for safety and security has eclipsed their need for retribution. Before the allies began bombing, Americans said that the war they sought was not with a particular country or religion, but with a small faction of fanatics spread throughout the world. And they believe that, while the perpetrators will be caught and punished, the U.S. governments stated policy of eliminating terrorism is unlikely to be accomplished. Canadians go even further and declare that efforts must be directed at preventing future acts of terror rather than just punishing the wrongdoers.

The truculence first heard from our leaders has likewise become more tempered and muted, mirroring the evolution of public opinion that has occurred over the past four weeks. It would seem we have come to realize that our initial desire for finality will not be fulfilled and that we will have to change our lives, not simply eliminate the lives of others, if we are to cope and thrive in this new environment.

The polls reveal the salience of the attacks on the U.S. for Canadians in other surprising ways. For the first time I can recall, Canadians are prepared to support increased defence spending. Even more out of character, we appear ready to fund it through increased taxation. Our natural antipathy to being drawn closer into the American orbit also seems to be evaporating. Almost 65 per cent of our citizens report a closer bond with Americans following Sept. 11 and believe our reaction to these events underscores recognition of a common set of values and interests.

In addition to accepting inconvenience and the possible diminution of civil liberties, Canadians report a willingness to give up a measure of sovereignty and to harmonize certain policies in order to secure a “North American perimeter.” Far from indicating a desire for a common identity with Americans, these findings merely underline an attitude that always lay just below the surface of Canadian public opinion— a grudging understanding that, for good or ill, the destinies of the two nations are inextricably linked. While this may dismay rock-ribbed nationalists, it should not shock. Given that we share outrage and fear about the present and anxiety about the future, its no surprise that our view of the world more closely mirrors our neighbours’.

Those of us who have analyzed coundess polls in the past know that public opinion can often be fleeting. But many of the behaviours and sentiments we are seeing are out of character with the world we knew before Sept. 11. They suggest we are going through a wholesale cultural introspection—a reassessment of what is important and what is unimportant in our lives. We are asking ourselves how we should be living our lives in the future. The Depression forever changed that generations attitude towards thrift; the Second World War gave new meaning to the horrors of dictatorship; the economic growth of the ’50s forever altered our commitment to prosperity. More and more, the events of Sept. 11 appear to be producing precisely this type of change.

At this point, it is worth noting that only those who are truly secure can afford to ignore politics. Only when we feel our safety is guaranteed, our opportunities undiminished and our possibilities unfettered do we have the luxury of treating governments and the political process as irrelevant. Now is not that time. No one has to tell us that markets and business will not bring resolution to our crisis. Far from it; they are now part of the problem. The image of an indefatigable Rudy Giuliani, carrying the burden of our sorrow, the heartfelt eloquence of Shimon Peres or the compelling persuasiveness of Tony Blair, however, remind us of the folly of our misplaced loyalties. Politics and government, once again, form a central part of our lives. Until this point, globalization has stood for little more than commerce. Advocates have endorsed trade and the elimination of world borders not so much as a solution to the planet’s problems but as a means of creating greater domestic prosperity. Sept. 11 opened our eyes to our insularity. Still digesting the seismology of the devastation in New York City and Washington, we felt the aftershock in the grim reminder that entire nations are fanatically dedicated to the destruction of the North American way of life. We have learned that we cannot afford to ignore the world around us.

The war against terrorism has been positioned as a fight between good and evil, decency versus fanaticism, freedom versus anarchy. Yet to wage this war we have said we are prepared to give up many of the very liberties we seek to protect. Some are prepared to die; many more are prepared to see others die to “preserve” our way of life. So much for the sanctity of life. Phones can be tapped; suspects can be incarcerated without charge; state assassinations will likely be sanctioned in the U.S.; the rule of law can be suspended.

We are succumbing to our collectivist impulse. We give up our unbridled freedom when we brake at a stop sign. Our journey is extended and our inconvenience compounded. But far from being an affront to civil society, this is its very foundation. The events of Sept. 11 have retaught us that rights are not necessarily guaranteed, but governed by the needs of the community. Accepting inconvenience and limits to our individualism—something we have strived to eliminate at every opportunity over the past three decades— now seems a small price to pay for the prospect of safety and security.

Tragedy on this scale has reordered our priorities. The wind on your face, a child’s laugh, a phone call to your mother has a different place in our constellation of importance. Caring about how we are governed and who governs, feeling a need to know more about the world we live in, accepting the limits to our individualism and the greater needs of the community, and considering humanitarianism as an offset to materialism: these stand as the unanticipated byproducts of one of the world’s most horrific days.

Allan R. Gregg is chairman of the polling and consulting firm The Strategic Counsel