In a frightened society, rights are too easily abused, writes ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU
My documentary, Secure Freedom, tells the story of Hassan Almrei, the Syrian national who has been detained in
Canada without a proper trial since October 2001. Hassan has not been found guilty of any crime. On the basis of secret evidence and without appeal, a federal court judge has found it reasonable for the Canadian government to believe that Hassan might be a danger to Canadian security. And this reasonable belief that he might be a danger is enough to issue a security certificate against the non-citizen Hassan, to strip him of his freedom, to have held him in solitary confinement for over four years, to continue to detain him for an as-of-yet undefined time, and
to possibly deport him to Syria, from where he is a refugee, and where he would be at serious risk of torture.
From the moment I learned about this measure, before I even met Hassan Almrei or any of the four other men also targeted by security certificates, I was disturbed. In my view, only a nation in the grips of fear would behave in such a way toward a person who has not been found guilty of any crime. I was worried by the idea that Canada might be succumbing to policies of fear, the same policies of fear that have transformed the United States. I am terrified of fear. For me, the arrival of fear in the affairs of state always marks a turn towards a more barbaric order.
When Franklin Roosevelt said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was addressing his nation in the darkest years of the Great Depression. He was attempting to steady the faith of American citizens in the American economy right after yet another banking crisis. The fear that he described was
thus an economic fear, and emphasized the fact that the ff ee-market economy only functions properly when there is trust in the rules of society and confidence in the monetary system.
Over the years, Roosevelt’s words have come to resonate far more broadly, however. They have come to represent the fortitude and unwavering dedication to principles of a great nation that stays the course in the face of odds and obstacles. Indeed, Roosevelt’s monument in Washington solemnly highlights what one understands to be the four most American types of freedoms. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear.
Freedom from fear is a most abstract principle. But when thought about carefully, it may well be the first freedom of society. It harks back to Hobbes’s early logic for the emergence of society: the free man is the one freed from animal suspicion and selfishness by his faith in the protecting force of the law. This freedom also connects back to Roosevelt’s warning that fear itself poses a crucial threat to the most basic social union. Really, a society wrought with fear is a society teetering on the edge of anarchy. In contrast, the law is fearless, justice is cold, and a secure freedom is a freedom without fear.
Terrorism is a crime explicitly connected to fear. A terrorist terrorizes us. Granted, the
term “terrorist” has been sorely misused over the years, but in essence it usually means someone who uses violence or the threat of violence against civilians to try to influence political realities when other means of change are available. For other means of political change to be available, a certain social order is presupposed, a certain set of rules is deemed to be in place. But the terrorist is the individual who reintroduces fear into the social order. Thus terrorism is deemed such a major offence, because it not only causes loss of life and property, but it also challenges and shakes the social order. Terrorism undermines our freedom by inducing fear in us.
It doesn’t take much of a jump to then conclude that the only legitimate war on terror must also be a war on fear itself. Terror is defeated when the fear it has induced is dispelled. Dispelling fear is much more than merely neutralizing a threat. To dispel fear, the threat also has to be rendered irrelevant by precisely a moral fortitude unshaken by terror, by an unwavering dedication to higher principles.
The war on terror as it has been conducted for the last five years has done nothing but increase fear worldwide, and thus enhance the impact of terror. Indeed, increased fear has been sown in so many different ways by those who purport to fight terror. To begin with,
the very vocabulary of this new war on terror has been nothing but inflammatory and vague from the start. Terms like “axis of evil,” “evildoers” or “crusade” conjure up the most dramatic imagery. How deeply they contrast with the sober words of Roosevelt. The appropriate conduct of a leader in the face of adversity should be to exert a calming and reassuring influence on the people, not to rile them up with apocalyptic warnings.
Of course, fear has also been sown in far more concrete ways abroad. I can only think of an Iraqi mother trying to explain to her child why bombs are falling on them. In Iraq, since the onset of violence, originally justified by the most fearful of principles—the pre-emptive strike—the social order has decayed to the point where now only violence and fear hold sway. Afghanistan inches closer to such a reality every day.
Fear is also the reason that we are paying so much more dearly for oil these days. The very same fear that Roosevelt said threatened the American banking system has now driven up the value of the ever more precious commodity.
In Canada, fear now colours our leisure choices and our news reporting. Think only of how, not a month ago, this very magazine conjured up intimations of World War III as Israel attacked Lebanon. Or how frantically we reacted to the terror arrests in June. For all we know, the men arrested are innocent, and it was all a mistake. Actually, they are innocent—until proven guilty.
In this over-mediated, overstimulated era, fear will likely make frequent appearances amidst our social mood swings. Fear has always
been present and will always be present. We should worry, however, when fear begins to infect our justice system or the workings of government. That is the fear that we should fear.
The security certificate has indeed institutionalized fear. It is a pre-emptive strike against an individual on the basis of the vaguest allegations. Hassan Almrei and the others are suspicious by association. They are suspicious for their beliefs, not their actions. I have spent the past year getting to know Hassan Almrei. Though he has been stripped down to nothing by our fears, he should not be feared. He is nothing now. He has nothing, or no one. He has no future. After five years in jail, all that he has left is what he should be granted: his incessant plea for justice.
Defeat fear. Grant it to him. M
Alexandre Trudeau’s documentary, Secure Freedom, will air at 7p. m. ET, Sept. 10, on CTV.
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