National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Canadians lived with the constant campaign for a decade. Many of us worried it was not only constant, but permanent. Then on October 20th we woke to the welcoming thought that it might finally be over and that a new era of Peace, Order and Good Government was beginning.

Then Paris exploded. As those events show, peace is far from assured. When terrorists strike, democracies around the world come to a screeching halt, Canada included.

Terrorism is the wild card in contemporary democratic politics. Even when it’s not on the table, we know it’s in the deck and that, sooner or later, it will be played again. When it is it trumps every other concern.

We feel angry, vulnerable and exposed. We talk about little else. Our governments get knocked off their agenda, sometimes for months on end.

Stopping the constant campaign, it turns out, was only the first step on the road to better governance. Now we must take a second. We must inoculate ourselves against the trauma of terrorism by coming to see it for what it really is.

On CBC’s The 180 last Sunday Policy Options Editor-in-Chief Dan Gardner made a useful start by looking at our reaction to terrorism through the lens of evolutionary biology.

Humans are hard-wired to respond to traumatic events in a certain way, he said. Obsession is the brain’s way of focusing our attention on particularly dangerous events in the world around us.

As long as we were living in caves or mud huts, this served us well. Our experience was limited to the walking space around us. If something seemed like a threat, it probably was.

Mass media changed all that. It extended our immediate experience to events around the globe, presenting them as though they were occurring in our backyard.

Thus, although few of us were actually in New York on 9-11, TV brought the spectacle to everyone. We have all witnessed the electrifying moment of the air strikes and the collapse of the smoldering towers—over and over again.

The chemical message to our brain is that these events are close at hand, insidious and deadly. Our emotions react accordingly. As a result, ISIS feels to us like an immense and threatening power when, in fact, it is a remote and relatively small army of brigands.

Terrorism is effective not because groups like ISIS are so powerful, but because they are so good at turning our own psychology against us. Suicide bombings fool the brain into believing an evil empire is invading our shores.

Not that terrorism should be taken lightly. It is a despicable evil and our response should be swift, firm and decisive. Gardner’s point is that our collective reaction through mass and social media, as well as politics, is driven by our traumatized emotions. It is an over-reaction that feeds hysteria. If we want to defeat terrorism, the first step is to bring ourselves under control.

To its credit, the Liberal government, unlike the last one, has shown no desire to sensationalize terrorism or to engage in the politics of fear. It has a robust and far-reaching agenda of its own and a democratic mandate to pursue it. But its success here could hinge on how able we citizens are to retain our collective composure when terrorism explodes into our living room—or on our own streets.

If we let it paralyze us, inevitably, we will pull our governments down with us. When the public panics, politicians have little choice but to resort to displays of strength, say, by “standing up to the terrorists,” which only heightens the hysteria.

There is a vicious circle here that, ironically, turns us all into ISIS recruits, first, by getting us to agree to play the game by their rules; and then by drawing us deeper and deeper into its clutches. At the same time, talk of the need for ever-greater security and surveillance invades our public discourse. The politics of fear starts creeping in.

The moral is that the terrorist threat to our freedom and safety comes less from the thugs at ISIS than from ourselves. We hold ourselves hostage to a discourse of fear, then use it to sideline democracy in order to protect ourselves from the very threat we have manufactured.

Canadians spoke admiringly of the Parisians who in defiance returned to the cafés the day after the strikes. When terrorism strikes, we can and should show solidarity with such people. The best way, I submit, is for all of us—governments, media and social media—to get back to the day-to-day business of democracy as quickly as possible.

I’ve spent much of the last decade arguing that, if governments give people something worth talking about, they will rise to the occasion. We now have an agenda that is worthy of debate. You don’t have to agree with it to participate. Opposition is a healthy part of democracy. The challenge is to get engaged.

This should be seen as more than a duty of citizenship; it should be seen as a critical component of our collective counter-terrorism strategy.

If we cannot control our own political discourse, the terrorists have already won.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. He is currently the Government of Ontario’s principal advisor on its Open Dialogue Initiative. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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