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Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it

Not long before the beginning of the Iraq war, a University of Regina professor asked his students whether it was justifiable to contain Iraqi…

Not long before the beginning of the Iraq war, a University of Regina professor asked his students whether it was justifiable to contain Iraqi students for purposes of national security.

The response was immediate and angry, the vast majority of the class decrying the measure as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

After the March, 2003, United States invasion of Iraq, Erich Schellhammer posed the same question to his students again.

“The response was totally different,” recalls the philosopher, lawyer and program head of justice studies at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia.

“All of a sudden, 80 per cent of the students, having watched all the bombing of Baghdad, all the violence, said, ‘Our security is at stake. Thus, it actually makes sense to round up all the Iraqi immigrants, even those who are (Canadian) citizens, to protect society at large.’”

Artificially-generated fear, paranoia and reaction, naiveté and a deterioration of the collective conscience seem to correlate with the erosion of civil liberties and human rights, he says.

But it is difficult to pinpoint the causes of the apathy that has gripped Canadians.

“A lot has been written about that, but nobody, really, can explain that. We only can state there is this apathy,” says Schellhammer.

“Apathy is usually the first step toward a dictatorship.”

Although much discussion has taken place regarding the fear factor and its contribution to a decline in social and political activism, innocence also plays a large part.

Human rights and civil liberties were born around 1948, in response to horrifying atrocities committed by Germany, Japan and Italy during the Second World War.

Lest we forget, says Schellhammer.

“It’s vanishing in memory. The people who knew about that, who could connect the face to those atrocities, they’re getting old, they’re dying.

“With that, the awareness that we really need human rights and civil liberties to prevent that from happening again is fading, too.”

The government’s increasing presence in the form of surveillance, data collection and other forms of privacy invasion discourages the kind of dialogue, association and even free thought necessary to contemplate liberty and rights, says Schellhammer.

“Citizenship and democracy, as we define them, require a critical assessment of authority. If there is no longer any private realm, if we feel that we are always in public spaces, how will we ever be able to get the courage to critically assess authority?”

 This absence of scrutiny can lubricate the way for legislation that pits neighbours against neighbours, like the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods legislation.

Like its municipally enforced companion, the law encourages citizens to rat on each other, and coerces landlords into spying on their tenants when there are suspicions of drug activity.

 These people do not likely remember the last time a government made a comparable law, says Schellhammer.

“The Nazis, when they came to power in 1933, the first thing they did is they had party members checking on the neighbours.”

Citizens also tend to welcome quick fixes to their fears.

When they are victimized, they call for tougher enforcement, despite study after study that disproves its efficacy in controlling crime.

When their children come home from school stoned, they call the principal and their member of Parliament to demand a drug dog be placed in the school, instead of examining and responding to the root causes of drug abuse, he says.

With the help of national and local media, citizens learn factoids and data, yet there is little effort on the part of either to discriminate between essential and non-essential information, nor to report accordingly.

This contributes to a decrease in political and social awareness.

An economic boom has created affluence and comfort among Canadians, but Schellhammer does not view this as a contributing factor to apathy.

Germany and Switzerland, two of the wealthiest nations in the world, are also home to the most informed and politically and socially active people.

But Canadian culture is devoid of ethics, personal and social, he says.

Traditionally, churches took the lead in instilling a sense of ethical responsibility in their parishioners.

Fewer and fewer attend church, and they usually do not have time to focus on ethics.

Communities do not fill this void because they stopped socializing.

And the school system deemphasizes ethics in striving for value-neutrality.

If we do not maintain and protect human rights and civil liberties, they deteriorate, says the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

The organization is partly responsible for the withdrawal of SCAN in the Northwest Territories after it sent a letter of condemnation to the NWT government.

But, although 17 eviction notices have been handed to tenants under the Yukon’s law, the BCCLA has received no notice of complaint or concern from the territory.

“The challenge you have in the Yukon … there’s a real question mark about who you have there in terms of advocacy organizations,” says lawyer and BCCLA executive director Murray Mollard.