The comfort of scapegoats

Since we’ve had politics, we’ve had scapegoats. The term, itself, has been around since William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible…

Since we’ve had politics, we’ve had scapegoats.

The term, itself, has been around since William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in the 1530s, but the concept is as old as humanity.

As an act of communal atonement, a community transfers its sins to an innocent animal — the scapegoat — and forces that animal out of the community.

Scapegoats relieve us of the burden of consequences, and a consequence-free decision is a temptation that few can resist.

In a crisis, scapegoating is especially popular.

A government — any government — that is in power when a major disaster or event hits will seek a scapegoat first and a solution second, if at all.

In Canada, and Western democracies generally, we’re lucky.

With a free media and an active voting populace, we can force our leaders to move beyond the knee-jerk reaction and pursue a broader understanding of how and why something happened.

But in most cases, the first job for the sober second thinkers is to undo the damage done by the scapegoating that initially greeted the crisis du jour.

In Canada, there are a host of examples.

Back on August 14, 2003, when a blackout wiped out power across southern Ontario and much of the Eastern US, some of the first words heard out of then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s mouth were words of blame.

In the space of two hours, the PMO had blamed a lightning strike at a power plant on the US side of Niagara Falls (twice at separate times) and a fire at a US-based power plant.

US politicians, including the governor of New York, were ruling out one scapegoat (terrorists) and suggesting another (Canada’s power grid).

It was dueling scapegoating, and it made great TV.

By the time a joint investigative panel released a report in April 2004 that set out what had actually happened, the media cycle had been exhausted by the blame-game tactics of the two governments.

As a result, there was limited public response to the final outcome and most people are no better informed today than they were back on that dark August night.

The power outage example is an event that doesn’t have any lasting impact on our lives.

But there are other examples that aren’t so innocuous, like Afghanistan.

On September 4, 2006, one Canadian soldier was killed and 36 others wounded as a result of friendly fire.

Since that day, the coverage and national debate has centered primarily on how our soldiers were killed and how it could have been prevented.

It’s a convenient course for the debate to take, from the Canadian government’s point of view.

Just hours before the incident, the Canadian government had been trumpeting Canada’s participation in Operation Medusa, “the largest Canadian military offensive in half a century.”

Now, they were pointing to a single US pilot.

Canada wanted the discussion to focus on the scapegoat — the individual who dropped the bomb.

It isolates the event and makes it a matter of human error in the field.

And it effectively insulates the government.

But the reality is that the soldier died and the others were wounded because they were dispatched to a war zone.

How they died is an ancillary issue.

When we send soldiers to Afghanistan, some of them are going to die. Period.

If Canadians support the military intervention in Afghanistan — and many do — then there is little reason to discuss the scapegoat.

If a person supports the military action, they do so with the knowledge that men and women are going to die.

And perhaps more importantly (but less often stated), those same men and women are going to kill people.

That’s what happens in war. We all know it; we just don’t like to talk about it.

And neither does the government.

So, they point to the scapegoats – the pilot that dropped the bomb.

The end result is that we never get down to a full debate about the real issue: Should we be in Afghanistan?

I am one of those who believe it is worth being there, at least as long as we play an equally large civil development role.

I say that because our army is made up of volunteers, not draftees, and because to date, I haven’t heard anyone articulate a viable option to the current military operation.

But I want to talk about the issue. I want to ask questions about my growing doubts.

I want to talk about what it means to be in Afghanistan and I want to provide some sort of direction to our government about how to handle things up to 2009 and beyond, the scheduled withdrawal date.

Near as I can tell, the only people stopping me from having that conversation are in the government.

There was an opportunity for discussion when the mission came up for debate in the House of Commons, but the prime minister turned it into a “nationalism” circus, where voting one way or another was used to paint MPs as pro- or anti-Canadian Forces.

That rhetoric is now changing.

The government is now indicating that the mission will not be extended beyond 2009 without some form of consensus.

Reality has set in and the scapegoat route has run its course.

As usual, we are finally getting down to a point where the government can no longer avoid the discussion.

I just hope that now that we have the opportunity, we don’t waste it.

I hope the government’s scapegoat approach to issue management hasn’t sated our appetite for a vigorous debate.

Because this isn’t just a power outage.

It is literally about living, dying and killing.

And those issues cannot be washed away by any biblical references.

Michael Hale is a Whitehorse-based writer.