Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Walls

Had this decision been made with the intent of ending wild media speculation on what may have been in store for Toronto and Ottawa, I would perhaps show some support. But the reasons why the Supreme Court has imposed a publication ban on the prosecution of the 17 terrorism suspects are, I'm afraid, more insidious. After feeding crumbs to the press for a little more than a week, the Crown has now decided that the proceedings should take place beyond the scrutiny of reporters, rights groups, the families of the accused, and the public. The reason given, as with all things secret, is the same old need to protect the sources—both domestic and foreign—whose information led to the arrests earlier this month.

Coming in the wake of Ottawa's ban on media coverage of the repatriation of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, I suspect that media speculation doesn't register very high on Ottawa's list of worries. In fact, for certain parties—namely CSIS and its overarching parent organization, Public Safety—wild speculation and sustained fear of the unknown is in their interest, as it provides the manna upon which they can sate their immense hunger for self-importance, and ensures that the money will keep pouring in, perhaps at a higher debit, even.

While this media ban continues a long tradition of secret courts and hearings, it is indicative of a dangerous trend emerging in Harper's Ottawa. The past weeks' events only seem to have given the authorities all they needed to unleash their mild totalitarian inclinations.

The institutions of power in Ottawa—and everywhere else, to be fair—are surrounded by walls. And nowhere are they thicker than around and within the security intelligence apparatus. Walls have long existed between the authorities and the public; thus the rulers and the ruled. But there are also walls between the authorities themselves—even within the organizations. There is an expression used in the trade for that modus operandi, and it's called "need to know." If someone decides that you don't need to know, you won't. Such secrecy serves its function, which is mostly to ensure that no one will ever be in a position to criticize someone else's work, from the desk officer all the way to the organization. What's worse, by limiting the number of people who have access to the information, this process leads to "groupthink," hereby, through a process of self-reinforcement, everybody in the group becomes unable to think outside the prevailing view.

Now, does anyone begin to wonder if this might not bode all too ominously for the suspects?

I fear that in the current instance, someone high up in Ottawa has decided that the public no longer needs to know what's going on. Nor do the defense lawyers, or the defendants themselves, for that matter. Given, as I have mentioned in previous postings, the high likelihood that errors of judgment and inference were committed by the officers who worked the case, this means that no one within Canada will be in a position to scrutinize the proceedings to ensure that these errors are heeded and taken into consideration. Absent an outside view, the unfortunate seventeen will be denied due process, and some of them will assuredly face sentences that, in theory, they should not be facing.

But, the readers might be inclined to counter, surely Court authorities—Canada's judicial system—have the means to review all the information that's being used as evidence against the suspects, and thereby correct any mistake that may have been committed. Unfortunately, from my own experience, this isn't the case. Vast amounts of information will be presented, and vast amounts will not. In reality, court officials only get to look at a case with one eye shut and therefore only see things in two dimensions. Furthermore, security officials and their lawyers are very good at shaping facts to fit the argument and at presenting a case in such a way as to make it unassailable. Remember the walls mentioned earlier? Such walls also exist between intelligence agencies and the court system.

The imposition of a publication ban is not only unacceptable and unconstitutional, but also represents a dangerous moral slide. Even in situations of seeming urgency (which in the present case is exactly what the authorities would like us to think), Canada's system shouldn't brook the legalized recourse to unlawful practices. The authorities cannot ride high on the fear created by the alleged plot only to endeavor, soon thereafter, to make the population conveniently forget about the individuals involved. If we allow those seventeen—along with the other individuals who are already incarcerated under Security Certificates—to be sucked into the impregnable fortress of secrecy, they'll lose the last vestige of hope that they will be treated fairly and humanly. Once that bridge has been blown (and this is exactly what the publication ban hopes to achieve), they become less than human. As history has amply demonstrated, nothing blunts the moral senses as the dehumanization of the other.

It happens in police states like Uzbekistan, where people are seized in the middle of the night and disappeared forever. It happens in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects are held for extended periods of time. It happened in Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi insurgents were beaten, humiliated and tortured by American soldiers. And yes, surprising as it may seem, it happens in Canada.

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