Monday, May 07, 2007

Not racism, lack of imagination

I remember the Air India bombing. Never once did I consider it anything but a tragedy and never once did I consider it unimportant or just an 'Indian affair.'

Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh say those are the attitudes of Canadians about the tragedy. They are implying that those kinds of attitudes -- racism and indifference -- allowed the tragedy to happen in the first place and have allowed the investigation to drag on this long.

I refuse to believe that civil servants were so racist that they could ignore a security threat because of the race of the passengers. I also don't believe that Canadians were indifferent to the mass-murder of hundreds of people who embarked from our soil, regardless of whether they were Indian, Canadian or both. That's insulting to all of us who have followed this case over the years and who have hoped for justice. The plodding pace of the government and its various investigations into this case is not testimony to the investment of ordinary Canadians in this tragedy. Our government represented its own interests, not our concerns.

Rae and Dosanjh are implying that Canadians would have cared more if this had been a British Airways or United jet. I don't think that's true.

And if our civil servants got it wrong before the fact, and didn't adequately assess the risk, it wasn't racism. It was ignorance. In those days it was almost unthinkable that radicals of any ilk would actually blow innocent people out of the sky. No political goal has ever been that important to most Canadians that they would bomb a plane or understand the psyche of someone who would. If there is any fault with the system of the time it was the Canadian habit of projecting our own world view onto others. We always assume that in any given situation, people will behave the way we would -- we could not imagine the malice that would allow someone to be so cruel. The complacency of the government on this was, at least in part, due to a tragic inability to view the world through the eyes of those who use terror to advance their goals.

Nearly thirty years on, in the post 9/11 world, no act of evil seems impossible. We are attempting to judge the 1980's Canadian security agencies based on our understanding of terror today. Their lack of imagination was understandable given their experience.

Imagine if Canadians had been indifferent? Twenty-seven years is far too long, but if the general public really viewed this is an 'Indian affair' or had we been indifferent to the deaths of hundreds of people because of their race, there would have been no demands for an inquiry beyond the families. Without public support, no amount of pushing from them would have forced politicians to review this tragedy.

Not every act of ignorance is grounded in racism. In 1985, we had rarely had to look at the world through the eyes of terrorists. What would seem like incompetence now,
might have been the simple inability to put ourselves in the other guy's shoes and to see that he really had no qualms about blowing up innocent people.


Why are we there in the first place?

The Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia is protesting a decision to shut down a booth at an education fair in the Saudi city of Jeddah aimed at wooing Saudi students to Canada because it was staffed by women.
Why are we 'wooing Saudi students'?

Do we think that once they get on the plane they will open their minds and eighteen years of ingrained disdain for women will spill out and they will embrace women as their equals and teachers?

I know. It's wrong to ask.