Saturday, September 4, 2010

Attack of the Beards: A Reflection on the Hirsute Hysteria Dominating Canadian Media in Latest “Domestic terror” Allegations

Attack of the Beards: A Reflection on the Hirsute Hysteria Dominating Canadian Media in Latest “Domestic terror” Allegations

September 3, 2010 – Coverage of the alleged Ottawa “terror” plot seems more inspired by Fashion TV or The National Enquirer than the objective, professional standards one would hope undergird established Canadian news outlets. Giant helpings of Islamophobia mixed with repeated references to speculative allegations not even mentioned by police in their end-of-the-world-is-coming-to-Ottawa press conference have done nothing but contribute to an environment of fear and hysteria.

Almost every article describing the accused men refers to the way they and their loved ones look. The Toronto Star notes one man was “sporting a bushy beard [and] a knitted skull cap.” The Ottawa Citizen reports one young man had a “full, long beard,” and that his wife wore a niqab.

The Citizen also reports that, in one case, “[the accused] took an extended vacation more than a year ago and returned having grown a full beard. It wasn’t known where he spent the weeks he was away.” (This is not normally information one shares with an employer or even fellow employees, but here it is clearly painted as suspicious.)

We are also informed that the wife of one of the men “dressed modestly”. The same article also references the “full beard often worn by Muslim men of strong faith,” but that during one man’s court appearance, it was a “full but neatly trimmed beard.” Brownie points clearly go to this Muslim! Another article in the same paper (Citizen) references an individual “with a curly beard and a brown skull cap over his long curly brown hair, and [another defendant] sporting a full beard.”

Are we to take from this that Muslims apparently “sport” beards, as if they are part of the terrorist tool kit? And can you tell a good Muslim from a bad Muslim by the length and curliness of their facial hair? As the week goes on and another young man is arrested, he is referred to as a “slightly-built bearded man.”

What is next? Inquisitorial committees asking men of Muslim faith the $64,000 question: Do you now or have you ever sported a beard?

In addition, we see that normal, everyday activities also become suspicious when engaged in by men of Muslim faith.

The Star reported that a neighbour of one of the accused men said that the first time she saw him, “he was pacing his lawn with his hands behind his back.” Where is the editorial hand that asks this journalist how this in any way contributes to the story?

The Citizen reported that the neighbour of another of the accused men recalled that his girlfriend had seen “men in robes, with beards and a type of ‘cone’ hat, near the elevator. When she tried to enter the elevator, the men told her to take the stairs instead, he said.”

No explanation is offered for this alleged behaviour, and we only hear one side of the story after a few days of scare headlines may have influenced this recollection, but seriously, are men allegedly plotting mass destruction going to discuss this in a 20-second elevator ride?

But Muslims grouped in elevators are clearly something we need to be vigilant about. Indeed, as Ottawa Police Chief Vern White warned residents of the National capital region this past week, we must all be wary now.

“Threat of terror our new reality” screams the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, though the police chief reassures us that there is no reason for people to be living with fear, even though he promises we have to be concerned about terrorism “for at least a couple of decades to come.” White tells us to be “vigilant about the abnormal. It doesn’t hurt to make the call and let police decide what’s up.”

But how does one define abnormal? Is it the one who doesn’t sit religiously watching the Ottawa Senators on the tube or attend Red Friday support-the-troops rallies? Is it someone who questions Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan, and this nation’s role in the torture of Afghans?

In the meantime, the press at all levels continue to parrot the party line without serious questioning. The Ottawa Citizen’s September 2 lead story screams, “Report links Ottawa ring to Taliban.” Reporter Ian Macleod conclusively begins his story by informing us that “The Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for May’s failed Times Square bombing, is now implicated in the alleged jihadist scheme to bomb Ottawa.”

What sounds pretty convincing in the first paragraph becomes, in the second paragraph, “the possible connection” between the groups. So where is this report? It emerges from the Daily Times of Pakistan, which states there is an “intense investigation” underway to determine “whether” the Pakistani Taliban “had a hand in the supposed plan to attack sites here.” Further, the report is based on statements from “an unnamed western diplomat and two officials in the ministry of the interior.”

So how can the media scream such a conclusive headline based on an overseas newspaper’s attempts to establish a link based on the unsubstantiated speculation of nameless individuals whose credibility cannot be established and who can hide behind their anonymity to press any agenda they please? The answer is simple: at the far right of the column is the bearded man in an orange jumpsuit staring out at us. Guilt by alleged association is easy to get away with when a climate of fear is created and stereotypes rule the day.

That stereotype deepens with sinister overtones related to travelling overseas. Colin Freeze of the Globe and Mail opines on August 28 that “the latest circuitry discovered is disturbing. Sources [unnamed] say it could have set off many explosions…While the device was assembled in Canada, police say they were partly built out of know-how acquired from terrorists overseas.”

If these alleged plotters are so smart—engineers, computer scientists, medical professionals –why would they need to go overseas to learn how to assemble the kind of basic electronics anyone could figure out here at home?

Freeze then says: “Details of the plot remain fuzzy, but there is speculation that Parliament Hill was a target on the terrorist hit list.” Who is speculating? Mr. Freeze? An official source, perhaps one who would publicly take responsibility for such a claim? And why would anyone trust a source from the so-called “intelligence” community when its agencies have clearly been found by Canadian courts to have lied, withheld information that goes against their own theories, and used information gleaned from torture?

Such examples of sloppiness (or, if one were to look at this systematically, fear-based bias) are everywhere. Further fear is put out there with the front page Ottawa Citizen headline, “CSIS kept close eye on suspect who worked with radioactive isotopes.” Well, turn to page three and the headline reads “One accused worked near radioactive isotopes.” An even smaller headline reads “Ahmed had no access to isotopes – used in dirty bombs – hospital says.”

Are editors at the Citizen asleep at the wheel here? From working with isotopes to being near them and then having no access to them – but reminding us that if he DID have access, he could always make a dirty bomb – scares the heck out of people who have been trained to react to those key words, like “extremist,” “dirty bomb,” “Islamist,” “beards”…

If we look further into what it is that may have “inspired” one of the men to be involved in the alleged plot, we are informed by The Ottawa Citizen that two threads are available to national security agents. One: the individual traveled to Pakistan to help with earthquake relief. This not uncommon act of charity on the part of the individual was replicated by thousands, so does that make them all security risks?

Two: “he added his name to a letter that demanded the Canadian government offer better medical care to three men held in jail on security certificates. (The men were then on hunger strikes.).” The report neglects to mention that over 70 health care professional signed that letter, and thousands of Canadians wrote letters on behalf of the men who were trying to improve living conditions in the facility dubbed Guantanamo North. Those detainees were held under a secret process unanimously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. Are all of these individual letter writers and Supreme Court judges now suspect?

Meanwhile, the terrorism industry’s most trusted guardians, those who produce endlessly scare mongering “op-ed” pieces for our papers, cheerily joined in the fray with repeated warnings that Canada’s time will come.

One Kingston academic praises the arrests as “clear successes for the Canadian security community.” How can these be successes if the men have not even been tried, much less convicted? The Toronto Star editorializes on August 27, “Breaking up a terror plot,” without using the term alleged – have they made up their minds already?

The Globe and Mail’s editorial board seems to have made up their own minds too. While editorialists scream bloody murder about the allegedly disabling political correctness of not offending the Muslim community, and now take pains to say they are not trying to profile the community, they go ahead and do it anyway.

In an August 27 editorial, “The call of jihad rings far and wide,” the Globe expresses shock that one of the men alleged to be involved “accepted the Hippocratic oath.” The Globe did not mention that doctors complicit in torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force Base, and other sites of torture have also taken that oath.

The editorial then asks “how to protect against a threat that cannot be stereotyped or fought by profiling based on age, appearance, or education.” In a leap of illogic, they answer that question by relying on the very profiling they say they will not use, saying “it is vital that those who would kill their fellow Canadians…are not sheltered or ignored by anyone in the Muslim community.”

Aha, so there it is again: the false conclusion that the Muslim community “harbours” those engaged in terror.

The arrests of this past August are reminiscent of those that took place 7 years ago, when Canadian media faithfully repeated baseless allegations against almost two dozen young men falsely accused of links to al-Qaeda. The so-called RCMP Project Thread was a complete and unsubstantiated bust, but lives were ruined and fear spread as headlines in “liberal” papers such as the Toronto Star blared “"Terror suspect may be freed; But others held as security threats; Documents claim links to Al Qaeda".

Then as now, the same racist questions are raised, almost all of which ask whether Muslims are willing to “integrate” into Canadian or “Western” society. “He seemed so westernized,” says one friend of a suspect (Star, August 27), while others worry about the “ordinariness” of the suspects (they played hockey!!!!).

Most incendiary was the August 27 headline in the Ottawa Citizen, screaming out, above two pictures of bearded men: “Your friends and neighbours: The Face of homegrown terror.” What kind of message does this send to anyone who may wear a skull cap and sport a beard? Are they to be looked at with suspicion? Obviously. And now, the ordinariness argument is thrown in. Not only are we to fear and suspect people who look this way, we are doubly to fear them if they are doctors, engineers, or computer technicians who like to play ball hockey. The message is clear: if you are Muslim, you cannot be accepted in “Canadian” society. If you are a successful Muslim in a professional field, can we REALLY trust you?

Amidst all the hand-wringing and scare mongering, there have been the odd voices calling for reason and reflection. One of them, the Citizen’s Dan Gardner, reminded Canadians that while no one was killed by “terrorism” in 2006, 41 people were killed in bath tub accidents, 9 in canoe and kayaking incidents, six by hot tap water, 104 by choking to death, and 54 by falls from ladders. Gardner notes that perhaps it’s time we stepped back and examine the real threats to the health and safety of Canadians (heart disease, diabetes, etc.).

“Terrorism is nothing more than one item on a very long list of relatively modest threats we cope with in modern life,” he writes. “Perceptions to the contrary are not the product of evidence and reason, but of flawed media reporting, self-interested hype and unfortunate foibles in human psychology.”

His conclusion, ultimately, is that we need to “calm the hell down.”


(Report from the bearded Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada and Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture)

"A revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal." Daniel Berrigan

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