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Father Raymond J. de Souza: Are we returning to an age of assassinations?

Commentary

Nicholas Roske was arrested on June 8th and charged with the attempted murder of Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the American supreme court. The 911 call that Roske himself made—“I need psychiatric help”—led to his arrest across the street from Kavanaugh’s house. He allegedly made assassination threats, was heavily armed, and travelled from California to the justice’s Maryland home. He was angry about a potential supreme court ruling restricting abortion rights.Armed man arrested near Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s home charged with attempted murder https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/man-arrested-supreme-court-justice-kavanaughs-home-allegedly/story?id=85259333

Congressional hearings into the January 2021 assault on the Capitol are focusing American attention on political violence. The Kavanaugh threat got relatively less attention. The New York Times put the news on page 20, and the Washington Post filed it under “Local Crime and Public Safety”, next to a report about a traffic accident. 

If you get your news from a still more progressive source, at Mother Jones the senior news editor was not as sanguine about bloodshed at the Supreme Court.

“We apparently just came unacceptably, terrifyingly close to catastrophe,” wrote Jeremy Schulman. “The assassination of a Supreme Court justice would be … a threat to American democracy every bit as severe as the January 6 insurrection and Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. … Everyone, across the ideological spectrum, needs to take this completely seriously and figure out what can be done to prevent the country from plunging into a new era of political violence reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. The fate of our republic depends on it.”The Assassination Plot Against Brett Kavanaugh Is a National Emergency https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2022/06/the-assassination-plot-against-brett-kavanaugh-is-a-national-emergency/

The fate of the republic does not depend upon it; after all, the assassinations of the 1960s did not vanquish it. But it did shape the politics of the time, and while assassinations have not been a regular part of political life for a few decades, it is not foolish to worry that they may return.

Assassination was a present danger and a political force throughout the twentieth century. Assassinations go back much further, of course, to Julius Caesar most famously—a development that loosed that demon in imperial Rome. Several of Caesar’s successors were also assassinated.

The most consequential assassination of our time set off the Great War—a calamity that resonates even today. Austria-Hungary went to war after the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne. By the end of the war, the Austrian emperor, German Kaiser, Russian tsar, and Ottoman sultan were all deposed. Gavrilo Princip’s bullet may have been the most consequential shot in history.

In a century of unprecedented violence there would be many more political killings, perhaps the most notable being the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 in a newly-independent India. Gandhi was killed by a fellow Hindu, a nationalist who objected to Gandhi’s conciliatory approach to Muslims and the new state of Pakistan.

The first family of Indian independence, the Nehru/Gandhis (no relation), would suffer two assassinations. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her. He was assassinated in 1991 by the Tamil Tigers.

For Americans, the 1960s was the time of the assassins. John F. Kennedy was killed as president in 1963, and his brother Robert while campaigning for president in 1968. Just months before RFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. In 1969, Malcolm X would be killed in New York. In 1972, Alabama Governor George Wallace was shot while campaigning for president. He survived but remained paralyzed for life.

In 1970, Canada had its most prominent assassination since that of D’Arcy McGee in 1868. Pierre Laporte, deputy premier of Quebec, was killed by the Front de libération du Québec during the October Crisis.“The October Crisis refers to a chain of events that took place in Quebec in the fall of 1970. The crisis was the culmination of a long series of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a militant Quebec independence movement, between 1963 and 1970. On 5 October 1970, the FLQ kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross in Montreal. Within the next two weeks, FLQ members also kidnapped and killed Quebec Minister of Immigration and Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte. Quebec premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau called for federal help to deal with the crisis. In response, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau deployed the Armed Forces and invoked the War Measures Act — the only time it has been applied during peacetime in Canadian history.” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/october-crisis

The 1970s brought prominent assassinations around the world. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was killed by his own half-brother’s son in 1975. In 1978, the Italian Red Brigades killed Aldo Moro, former prime minister of Italy and close friend of Pope Paul VI. In 1979, the Irish Republican Army blew up Lord Louis Mountbatten’s boat, killing the United Kingdom’s most prominent military personality and the uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh. 

Having dealt a lethal blow to the Royal Family, the IRA would make another spectacular attempt, attempting to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. She narrowly escaped from a hotel bombing that killed five and injured 31.

The nadir of assassinations came in 1981, when Ronald Reagan (March), Pope John Paul II (May), and Anwar Sadat (October) were all shot. The president and the pope survived; the Egyptian peace-maker was killed by an Islamist extremist.

Sadat’s assassination for making peace foreshadowed the 1995 murder of Yitzhak Rabin, killed by an Israeli who objected to Rabin’s making peace at Oslo. The twin assassinations of Sadat and Rabin, by their own people, have made Arab-Israeli peace more difficult—the price for the peacemakers could well be death.

While political violence is never absent, the Rabin assassination seemed to mark an end to a century plagued by them. There have been assassinations since: Rafic Hariri in Lebanon (2005) and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan (2007). Yet assassination has retreated from a prominent role in this century. 

Might the time of the assassins return? Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated last July. There was an assassination attempt against Vladimir Putin earlier this year. 

In the United States, had Roske decided to rush Kavanaugh’s home rather than call 911, the justice could well have been dead, possibly setting off widespread violence.  

In 2011, Gabby Giffords, a Democratic member of Congress from Arizona, was shot. Six years later, Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, was shot. Both survived. 

In a country plagued by mass killings on a weekly basis, with two members of Congress shot in recent years, is the assassination of supreme court justice outside the bounds of what can be imagined?

Justice Kavanaugh was not hurt. The next time, and the next target, may not escape harm.

The signs are ominous. Fear about our political situation is widespread. How much worse will matters be if the time of the assassins returns?

Paula Simons: Criminalizing speech won’t reduce anti-Semitism

Commentary

This essay is adapted from a speech given by Senator Paula Simons in response to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada contained in the government’s budget act. Read the full speech or watch the video here.

Forty years ago ⁠— the very same year that Canada adopted its Charter of Rights and Freedoms ⁠— Alberta was convulsed in a political and legal debate over Holocaust denialism and the trials of Jim Keegstra.

Keegstra had been a high school social studies teacher in the village of Eckville.

He taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax, faked by a international Jewish conspiracy to control the world, and the global economy. He taught his horrific hate for years, without being stopped by any principal or school board ⁠— until one heroic mum, Susan Maddox, fought to have Keegstra fired. He finally was, in 1982. Two years later, he lost his teaching licence.

So far, so good. But in 1984, Jim Keegstra was also charged, criminally, with the willful promotion of hatred. That case, fought all the way to the Supreme Court, twice, there and back again, finally concluded in 1996, with a conviction…and a sentence of a mere 200 hours of community service.

The landmark legal precedent in the Keegstra case established the constitutionality of Canada’s hate speech legislation.

But far from silencing Keegstra, much less changing his mind, those 12 years of appeals and retrials gave him a bully pulpit to posture as a false defender of civil liberties – and to amplify his conspiracy theories.

He basked in national notoriety. In 1987, he was catapulted from being a village school teacher to leader of the federal Social Credit Party. Meanwhile, Keegstra’s lawyer, a fellow Holocaust denier named Doug Christie, used the profile he gained while defending Keegstra, to become the founder and leader of the Western Canada Concept separatist party.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jim Keegstra, Doug Christie, and their dark legacy this week, as the Senate has been debating Bill C-19, the new budget implementation act.

Hidden away in the fine print of the budget bill is a line that amends the Criminal Code of Canada. Bill C-19 creates a new offence: to “prohibit the communication of statements, other than in private conversation, that willfully promote antisemitism by condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust.” The crime would be punishable by up to two years in prison.

This little provision, hidden away in the budget bill, hasn’t had much public attention. But I fear it’s a ticking time bomb.

As the Keegstra case amply demonstrates, denying the Holocaust is already a hate crime – making this law redundant at best. But prosecutions of this type often have ugly, unintended consequences.

As the child of a Jewish father and a German mother, let me very very clear. There is no good faith way to ‘debate’ or ‘question’ the reality of the Holocaust, one of the best-documented, well-researched atrocities in modern history. Anyone who questions or denies or diminishes its full genocidal horrors is not engaging in authentic intellectual debate.

Holocaust deniers are, by definition, hate-mongers. There is simply no way to question or interrogate the reality of the Shoah that is not, by definition, anti-Semitic.

Downplaying the Holocaust is every bit as morally vile.

Instead of criminalizing speech, let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over.

When people who oppose masking rules pin yellow stars to their chests, and or dare to compare vaccine mandates to the Nazi war crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg?

Their facile appropriation the horror of the Holocaust dishonours the memory of all those who died ⁠— and all who survived.

Yet attaching criminal penalties to such statements and actions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. It will, instead, give neo-Nazis and racists a perfect excuse to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of free speech, and to claim the public spotlight as faux defenders of “intellectual freedom.”

Slipping this criminal code amendment into a budget bill could well open the door for hundreds of new hate-mongers and bigots to claim victimization, to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, spreading their bile via every social media channel, in ways Keegstra could never have imagined. He had a small captive audience of Eckville school children. Today’s anti-Semites spray their bile to hundreds of thousands of people with the click of a keyboard.

I’ve spent my whole life as an advocate for free speech and civil liberties. I learned that from my father, from my uncle, from my grandfather – all passionate Jewish civil libertarians who taught me early not to trust in the power of the state as protection.

I do not believe we can fight hate by criminalizing speech, however vile or deluded. Nor by silencing it — even if we could. Driving hate underground to curdle and fester doesn’t help.

Once we start to criminalize speech, to police, literally, what is true and what is false, once we use the Criminal Code and the criminal courts to silence the nasty political fringe, we start down a path that leads precisely where we do not wish to go. This strategy will only convince the paranoid and the conspiracy-prone that they are correct. It plays right into the hands of the far-right thought scammers and grifters who prey on fear and ignorance.

I have no doubt the government is well-intentioned, in making this amendment. Many in the Jewish community have advocated for precisely this change — and many in the Jewish community, including many I love, will disagree me, vehemently.

But my father, of blessed memory, had a line he liked to use, half-joking and half-not — “Is it good for the Yidden?” Is it good for the Jews?

This bill will not be good for the Yidden. Nor for Canada.

Instead of criminalizing speech, let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over.

Let’s record and remember and reamplify the stories of the survivors, before they themselves are overtaken by time, and no longer with us to bear witness.

Instead of arresting and charging every online hatemonger and troll — a next to impossible task — we should focus, instead, on making the big tech platforms more transparent and more accountable for the way their algorithms privilege and promote incendiary hateful speech.

Especially now, with hate crimes of all kinds multiplying, with social media platforms aerosolizing racism, with neo-Nazis parading proudly through our streets, with mainstream Canadian parliamentarians embracing and spreading conspiracy theories and classic anti-Semitic tropes, we must call out lies and champion the truth.