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Steve Lafleur: Canada’s reaction to terror in Israel shows we aren’t that divided

Commentary

The recent terrorist attacks against Israel have understandably preoccupied Canadian pundits. It’s the most consequential and horrific terrorist attack to hit one of our allies since September 11th, 2001. People are understandably devastated and angry. 

One thing that’s changed since 9/11 is social media. Back then we consumed the news. Now we participate in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the incentives in a click-based information ecosystem can be terrible. Measured responses don’t get much engagement. Edgy comments do. Needless to say, there have been some extremely bad takes lately. 

Those bad takes haven’t just been limited to one Kremlin stooge on Twitter. Organizations like CUPE Local 3906 have a lot to answer for to their members and to the public. But step back for a second. If you’re on Twitter, you probably knew immediately which tweet I was talking about, right? That’s because for the most part, Canadian institutions have come out in support of our allies, even if not unequivocally. 

No matter what you see on Twitter, Canada isn’t a badly divided country. We’re not Germany: we don’t have a white supremacist party supported by one-fifth of voters. We’re not the United States: we don’t have a major party willing to overturn legitimate elections. We’re really not that divided.

Consider the last week. The prime minister and leader of the official Opposition both spoke at a vigil in Ottawa, each denouncing the terrorist attack. The finance minister and the NDP-affiliated mayor of Toronto spoke at Nathan Phillips Square in support of Israel, while a much smaller pro-Palestinian rally took place nearby. 

While we don’t have any Canadian polling data yet, a CNN poll found that an overwhelming percentage of Americans are sympathetic to Israel after the attacks by Hamas. Seventy-one percent of Americans told pollsters they felt a lot of sympathy, while 25 percent of people said they had some sympathy. Even in America, a country with deep political divisions, there is a high degree of consensus on the matter. There’s no reason to believe polling results look much different here, notwithstanding a few protests.

Then consider Ukraine. While there’s rough political consensus on Israel, there’s virtually complete unity on Ukraine. All three major parties are fully supportive of our Ukrainian allies and there’s no equivocation from the media. 

There are always loud minorities on the other side of any issue, even whether gravity exists or not. We shouldn’t let them become a distraction. Fixating on them sure doesn’t help our allies in Israel or Ukraine, or our Jewish friends at home. Helping our friends and allies requires concrete measures, not rhetoric. I’m not an expert on geopolitics, but I can tell you that finger-pointing won’t help anyone.

Push comes to shove, Canadians are, for the most part, rowing in the same direction. We may sometimes lack resolve, but we share broad goals. No one anywhere near the levers of power is cheering on Vladimir Putin. No important elected official is cheering on Hamas. Few countries can claim that kind of political unity. 

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t criticize people who have opinions we disagree with. We should. But we also need to recognize that in a pluralistic society, there will be some people with horrible opinions. Frankly, in a non-pluralistic society there will be even more people with terrible opinions. We can’t prevent that: we’re human. 

What we shouldn’t do is paint broad groups with the same brush. Scouring the Internet to find people with bad opinions doesn’t help anyone. I recognize that partisan point scoring will always be tempting. But it’s not helpful. Not everything needs to be a wedge issue. We aren’t a deeply divided country. We shouldn’t try to exaggerate our differences, even if you think it will help your team in the next election. We’re bigger than any team.

We all get a dopamine hit from arguing with people online. It’s one of the dark sides of social media. But being preoccupied with disagreements doesn’t help anyone. It’s bad for our mental health. It’s bad for the country. We don’t need to go looking for fights over every single issue. Get some fresh air. Touch grass. Our neighbours aren’t your enemies.

We live in a great country full of great people, even if there are some bad ones. We should celebrate that. Stoking disagreements doesn’t move the ball forward. It bogs us down in pointless arguments. We can do better than that. We should. We must.

Rudyard Griffiths: The media’s reporting on the war risks going from bad to worse

Commentary

Imagine the following. It’s a cool autumn night in October on the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The usual small groups of migrants are picking their way north through dry riverbeds and mesquite along the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez towards El Paso, Texas.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, gangs of masked men in the thousands on motorcycles and trucks equipped with machine guns, rocket launchers and explosives rush out of the streets of Juárez to and through the border fence. They quickly overwhelm lightly armed U.S. border patrol officers.

That night and the following days La Línea, the ultra-violent military wing of the Juárez Cartel, rampage through El Paso killing local law enforcement and engaging in the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Americans. Women, children and the elderly are kidnapped and taken back across the border into Juárez, a city of a million and a half people, and secreted in the dense, warren-like slums of Delicias and Babicora Sur. The cartels continue to launch rocket attacks on El Paso, hinder the evacuation of civilians from Juárez and refuse to negotiate over the return of hostages.

It is clarifying to ponder how mainstream media might react to a proportional horror perpetrated on America as that experienced recently by Israel. Would we see a rush to judgment, just hours after the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history, to call its cartel perpetrators “militants”? As the president and joint chiefs planned America’s overwhelming military response would our curated news feeds be flooded with experts cautioning the response be “proportional” and urging negotiation with the cartels before resorting to armed force? When the 1st Marine Division began to prepare the battlespace in Juarez with sustained ariel assaults, would news outlets report, with utter credulity, civilian casualty numbers compiled by the cartels themselves? And would NGOs and the United Nations take to the airwaves unchallenged to blame America for the refugee crisis unfolding in Juárez while the cartels actively prevent the civilian evacuation?

The answer is no. Yet here we find ourselves, a week after the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, engaged in a bizarre contest of equivalency when it comes to much of mainstream media’s reporting on the war and the respective actions of Israel and Hamas.

Supposedly world-class broadcasters like the BBC and CBC continue to double down on calling Hamas terrorists “militants” seemingly oblivious to the very definition of the word and the implied legitimacy it conveys when one describes persons who perpetrated crimes against humanity as “engaged in warfare or combat.” To state the obvious, the mass murder of civilians is terrorism, never “warfare or combat” and this moral confusion is a moral stain on those who chose to perpetuate such a fallacy.

The media’s sudden fixation with proportionality as a moral rubric to assess the legitimacy of Israel’s assault on Gaza (and by inference Hamas’ response) should also elicit suspicion. Where for example were media concerns about proportionality when Western armies fought ISIS in Iraq just six years ago? In the Battle of Mosul (2016-2017) upwards of 40,000 civilians were alleged to have been killed by allied bombing and a coordinated ground assault by over a hundred thousand troops. Yet, press reports at the time are devoid of any discussion of the “proportionality” of the Western led military response. It is hard not to conclude that for many in the media a different moral yardstick applies when it is our militaries fighting radical Islamic extremists as opposed to Israel’s.

Similarly too the media’s goalposts for screening disinformation are shifted when Israel is at war. The scoresheet like charts and graphs blaring Israeli and Gazan civilian casualties on websites like The New York Times represent some of the mainstream press’ worst perpetuations of false equivalency. Half of the numbers tallied come, after all, from the Hamas controlled and operated Gaza Health Ministry. Yet, a media that is rightly hyper-attuned to, say, Kremlin falsifications of war casualties reports out public health data from an internationally banned terrorist group running a brutal authoritarian government as unquestioned fact. Again, one is left with the sense of a powerful double standard at work in much of the media’s coverage of the war so far.

These sins of commission are compounded by a grave error of omission. Missing from much of the reporting on this war, to date, is evidence of a basic understanding of the perilous strategic situation Israel finds itself in as a ground invasion of Gaza begins.

Put bluntly, much of the media’s coverage of the conflict assumes that what is unfolding in Gaza is a war of choice for Israel—that viable strategic options not only exist but in fact are preferable for the Jewish state that don’t involve an all-out assault on Gaza. These include everything from rebuilding in the short term its border fence and entering into hostage negotiations with Hamas to restarting lapsed negotiations with the PLO to explore new avenues for a “two state” solution over the long term. These kind of policy mirages, however pleasant and immediately de-escalatory, are based on deeply flawed logic and ignore the reality of the current situation. 

The scale of Hamas’ attack, the carnage it wrought and the national trauma it caused, represents arguably the greatest failure of Israeli deterrence since the founding of the Jewish state. Deterrence or the ability to shape and influence the behaviour of your enemies is the sine qua non of sovereignty and doubly so when you live in a neighborhood as dangerous as the one Israel inhabits. Put simply, the state of Israel will not survive unless it can re-establish credible deterrence with its enemies. Logically, this can only be brought about by a complete strategic defeat of the entity that caused Israel’s current crisis of deterrence or Hamas.

Other nation states understand the importance of credible deterrence and it is the major reason for the full-throated support for Israel from great powers like the U.S.France and U.K. They know that in a similar situation (for example, my cartel counterfactual) there is no other option for a sovereign power but to reestablish, as quickly as possible, credible deterrence.

This cold calculus isn’t nice. It is especially cruel to the civilians now caught up in the war. It cannot and will not indemnify the IDF for any war crimes committed in its pursuit of the destruction of Hamas. But it does establish that this is a war of necessity for Israel and needs to be understood as such.

The moral calculus of wars of necessity are inherently different (think, for example, the Second World War). They represent moments in history where false equivalencies are laid bare. The mainstream press needs to acknowledge this and get on with covering the war accordingly. 

Hamas is a terrorist group, full stop. Proportionality isn’t a particularly helpful metric to assess right and wrong in a war of necessity against evil. All participants’ claims must be subject to rigorous verification and vigorous disinformation screening. Benefit of the doubt should be given to the truthfulness of democratic governments over authoritarian, terrorist regimes. Israel is not invading Gaza out of choice. And, most important of all, Hamas is singularly responsible for this war and ultimately all its attendant suffering by Jews and Palestinians.