I was reading an article over the weekend that offered a new perspective on the old saying “the ends justify the means”. According to Rick Salutin we spend far too much time agonising over the means aspect of that statement without ever analysing the “ends”. In his article he looks at the current debate over torture to try and explain his opinion.
“Now, I certainly think you can imagine a situation in which any of us might act brutally under stress for the sake of a noble result, often involving kids or loved ones, or mass murder of innocents…” Rick Salutin, “The Globe and Mail” October 21, 2005
Well, yeah of course, what wouldn’t we do if someone we loved were in jeopardy, or we knew that the person in front of us had the answer to preventing mass murder? Probably anything, and then we would have to live with the consequences of our actions. Most likely most of us might have a coupled nights troubled sleep, but aside from that our consciences would be clear.
But that’s an entirely different matter from the legalization of torture, or turning a blind eye to it by shipping people to a third party country, on the off chance that this person may have information pertaining to “The War on Terror” When the Canadian government allowed Syrian officials to torture people like Maher Arar they did so on the off chance that he might know somebody within Al Queada.
Now a lot of people are appalled at the obvious mal treatment of an innocent man, but not many people have questioned the mentality that brought about his circumstances. Mr. Salutin makes the argument that we would be better served questioning the responses to the bombing of the World Trade Centre (The War on Terror, and the level of fear generated by governments among their populaces), than trying to stake out moral high ground on issues like torture.
The war in Iraq has a tangible target, whether we agree with it or not is another question, but that war will supposedly end when the pacification of the country is completed and their new government is established. When will the War of Terror end? Who is the enemy? If tomorrow it were announced that Osama bin Laden had been captured would that mark its end?
Of course not, there’s always going to be someone out there who will be willing to pick up the gauntlet and make anti western statements. There will always be people fanatical enough to be willing to blow themselves to smithereens for a cause. People like the folk who blew up the building in Oklahoma City. The War on Terror is a nebulous phrase which gives who ever is governing the power to do what ever they want without having to make excuses.
In Canada there was what was known as the October crises in 1970. The Quebec provincial minister of justice was kidnapped and murdered, and the British high commissioner was kidnapped by the Front de Liberation du Quebec (F.L.Q.). The federal government imposed a little know piece of legislation known as The War Measures Act, which stripped every citizen in Canada of civil liberties. Thousands of people were rounded up and thrown in jail in Quebec just based on suspicion. (Including a surprising number of people who supported candidates running against the incumbent mayor of Montreal in imminent municipal elections)
I don’t think one of those people even went to trial let alone served any jail time aside from those days spent wondering why they had been arrested. How many people in Canada and the United States, who are currently being held prisoner, or being shipped out to Syria for torture, are in the same situation right now?
What I would find amusing, if it weren’t so sad, is how many people who support these moves are the same ones who complain bitterly about what they call government interference in their lives. What could be more invasive than a government’s right to arrest you without any reason?
Maybe they feel safe because right now because it’s other people who are getting rounded up. What would happen if all of a sudden there were a spate of Oklahoma City type bombings again, and the government decided that they had to round people with those types of political leanings? These laws are on the books now, and can be applied to any situation and anybody, not just people with swarthy skin and funny sounding last names.
Is that far fetched? Perhaps, but Oklahoma City was bombed, and there are still enough disgruntled people out there that if times change and a government they are less enamoured of comes into power…who knows. I guess the only trouble would be figuring out who to round up. Can’t just go around arresting every person who’s ever had anything to do with a libertarian now can you?
The point is that we need to hold our governments far more accountable for the ends they use to justify their actions. Laws and policies need to reflect more than just the current world situation, but be a reflection of the society they are written for. If we in the developed world claim to be setting the bar as far as governance and social behaviour goes, why are we utilizing the practices of those societies we say we condemn?
It is one thing to be driven by the exigencies of circumstances, but another altogether to justify actions in circumstances when they aren’t warranted. Ends that allow for any means, while having no clear definition themselves, are subject to abuse that could eventually become more of a threat to our society, than the threat they were supposedly designed to cope with.