We all have to believe in something, and Michael Ignatieff believes in standing up.
During last week’s leadership debate, the intellectual heavyweight of the Liberal Party of Canada declared, “I felt when I had to stand up I had to make a choice to stand with a mission, stand with the troops, and stand with their extension — this is the key point — stand with the extension because Canada is a serious country.”
A serious country.
It could be the theme for an election campaign.
It’s not exactly the Just Society, but people expect less nowadays.
Ignatieff, who has been touted as the Trudeau for the 21st Century, the thinking Liberal’s candidate, comes off sounding more like Nixon.
“If you ask us to do something hard and difficult,” he told the assembled faithful, “we will do it. We should stay there until we get the job done and return with honour.”
It’s a curious commodity this honour. In most battles, both armies are fighting for it. It is often achieved only in death, and thus is never enjoyed except in anticipation.
In certain cultures women are murdered for honour. Not their own, presumably, but their husbands’. We honour flags, freedom and the dead.
But perhaps the strongest characteristic of honour is that it is never universally perceived.
Warriors and martyrs from NATO fighter pilots to al-Qaida bombers, from the Taliban to the Princess Pats all return with honour in someone’s eyes — if they return at all — but it’s seldom that their victims concur in their own honourable self-assessment assessment.
What’s honour to one often turns out to be terror to another.
The Concise Oxford defines honour as, “high respect, glory, credit, reputation, good name; nobleness of mind.”
Honour is an honourable thing, and well worth the price if you’re not one of those who are dying for it, and there’s not much chance of Ignatieff doing that.
He believes in standing, but not in front of the bullets, or on the path of the roadside bombs. That’s someone else’s job.
Last week, he found himself standing just a little closer to the line of fire when it was revealed that a gang of would-be terrorists had discussed — along apparently with some other fairly zany schemes — the possibility of taking Parliament hostage, and beheading MPs on the hour until their demands were met.
(Canadians are a peaceful and kind-hearted people as a whole, and surely the general public didn’t allow itself to relish this thought for more than a second or two.)
The Ontario terror suspects appear to have been a poorly organized band of wannabes, though it’s fair to point out that the 9/11 crew would have looked like amateurs too if only they’d been caught before that tragic day.
But the fact that 17 potential killers were recruited at all, out of the ranks of Canadian citizens, most of them Canadian born, demonstrates the likelihood that someday a more professional gang will attack us from within.
There are at least two ways to understand the fact that relatively prosperous young Canadians are willing to kill other Canadians, and to give up their own lives in terror attacks.
One is to regard radical Islam as a lunatic death-cult, and its members as fanatical psycho-killers who have been brainwashed into hating freedom and democracy.
Questions arise about this theory — such as where did they get the impulse to present themselves for brainwashing in the first place?
Worse, it’s a bleak and futureless notion. If the growing radicalism among young Muslims represents nothing more than a fad for a murderous cult bent on destroying our values, then we’re all doomed.
How can you fight something like that?
On the other hand, if these young men are fighting for honour, just like the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, just like fighters everywhere, then they have rational motives we can understand.
They are no mystery. They are idealists, and like a lot of young idealists, they are at their most dangerous when manipulated by older and more cynical minds.
It’s impossible to know what goes on in the mind of a fanatical crazed killer, or how any young Canadian could allow himself to be recruited into such ranks.
But the question becomes less thorny when we ask, how does an idealistic young Muslim might get sucked into a plot to attack the Canadian spy agency, or the state radio and television network during a time of war.
He does it for honour.
Canada is at war in Afghanistan, and may be complicit in war crimes there by handing over prisoners first to the US and then to the Afghan army, either of whom might have tortured them, in some cases to death.
We are also deeply involved in the so-called War on Terror, and are widely believed to participate in the CIA’s notorious policy of “renditions” of prisoners to client torture states.
To convince young Muslims that these things offend their honour is well within the normal scope of military recruiting.
Millions of young heroes marched off to the First World War on far flimsier evidence.
If the great intellectual Ignatieff were reading history with his eyes open, he’d know that everybody rides to war on a wave of honour, but very few return with honour intact.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.