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Defend the Border: Why CBC's new show can only help "the bad guys"
The phrase “defend the border” wasn’t always a metaphor. And it isn’t just a metaphor in many parts of the world, even today: some states do have to worry about overland military invasions.
Canada is not such a state. To the degree that it is, the only conceivable invader is, of course, the United States. Those in Canada who talk about “defending the border” are distinctly unconcerned about such a possibility. They are, instead, making an analogy for a set of power institutions designed to keep “them” out and “us” safe.
Some argue that the threat of terrorism to Canada is so great that it outweighs any mushy, politically correct concerns. The historian J.L. Granatstein, in his book, “Whose War Is It?” makes such claims (1). So, with its new show, does the CBC, a point to which I’ll return below. Stripped down to basics, his argument is that Canada, to be safe, needs to subordinate its foreign policy to the US and join its War on Terror wholeheartedly, instead of half-heartedly. The most incredible aspect of his book, however, is that Granatstein relies on fiction – literally, entirely fictional scenarios about Muslim terrorists releasing poison gas in a Toronto subway at the same time as a natural disaster on the West Coast – to demonstrate how Canada needs to have better military preparedness. Granatstein can’t find real threats to justify his policy suggestions, so he makes them up. The detention of over a dozen young Muslim men in Toronto for over a year, accused of some sort of convoluted terrorist plot and possibly entrapped by the authorities, suggests that perhaps Canada’s police and intelligence agencies are also in the business of making up threats (2).
Besides making up threats, the policy suggestions of this school of thought are designed to bring such threats into existence. If certain kinds of terrorism are correlated with foreign occupation, as for example Robert Pape argued in his systematic study of suicide terrorism (“Dying to Win”), Canada’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan, supported by these hawks, is increasing the threat to Canadians. So, too, is Canada’s support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its bombing of Lebanon, and the US occupation of Iraq.
This two-pronged approach, trying to create public fear and racism by contriving fictional threats on the one hand, and participating in occupations and human rights violations on the other, results in a toxic public conversation and a deadly foreign policy. All the same, it is embraced by historians like Granatstein, right-wing newspapers like the National Post, and, most recently, by the CBC.
The CBC’s new show, “The Border”, provides an expensive fictional apology for this two-pronged approach. Its heroes wrestle with moral dilemmas. According to the show’s publicity, “every week, a crack team of Canadian immigration and customs agents deal not only with the latest border-security crisis, but also with the consequences of their actions. Are they rushing to judgment? Are the bad guys really bad guys, or just victims of racial profiling?”
Wrestling with moral dilemmas of immigration and customs would of course be welcome, and Canadians can certainly use more such wrestling. But if the questions are those of an impoverished moral universe (“are the bad guys really bad guys?”) then the answers aren’t going to yield any riches. If we begin from the premise that there are these “bad guys” who threaten us because they are “bad guys”, and the job of customs agents is to use high-tech surveillance and psychological interrogation methods to ferret the “bad guys” out from the ordinary victims of racial profiling, we have already forfeited our moral and political sense. War and terrorism are political phenomena. They are done by political actors (including the US and Canada, if we are consistent in our definitions of war and of terrorism, as well as groups like al-Qaeda) pursuing political agendas with the means they have available. To stop war or terrorism requires first understanding these agendas and actors and seeking political solutions to the problems. This does not exclude the use of force or intelligence, but there is no way that fear, faked threats, celebrating the shredding of civil liberties, ignorance, or propaganda can help. The propaganda of “bad guys” and “evildoers” is itself a tool of war, and the CBC’s new show is such a tool.
I perused “The Border” website (cbc.ca/theborder), viewed the character profiles, and played the online game. The show does, indeed, look well-produced, well-acted, and well-written, which of course makes it worse. The main character, Mike Kessler, is a former JTF2 “counter-terrorism” officer who helped cover-up a massacre in Bosnia, and is tormented by his past. His goal, according to the website, is “to stop people like Mannering (a CSIS agent) from using fear to subvert democracy and take over the country.” This, too, sounds noble, as does his “struggle to hold a line of decency and integrity in a world gone mad.” But the very premise, Kessler’s fundamental moral dilemma – how do you keep your decency while fighting “evil” – is flawed, and from it one can never reach an understanding of what is really happening in these wars. The real question for such agents in the war on terror is simpler: how do you keep your decency while doing evil. And the answer is clear. You can’t.
Other characters with moral dilemmas include Layla Hourani, the “South Asian woman in a white man’s job, a Muslim agent who locks up Muslim bad guys” and finds herself drawn to her charming, roguish partner Gray Jackson, a “womanizer, gambler, and all-round cowboy, with an athlete’s body and an easy, amiable smile.”
Gray and Layla are the agents you face when you play the Border’s interactive game. They intimidate you and present you with fabricated evidence that you committed a border violation, threatening you with a 48-hour detention, using various psychological techniques like asking you why you are so nervous and telling you they already know you did something. When you pass the interrogation, Kessler comes in and says he admires your ability to keep your cool and would like to recruit you to work for ICS. When you accept, you are on to the next level and the next assignment, trying to locate an “evildoer” named Tariq Haddad. Tariq Haddad is an Afghan national whose languages are Arabic and English. This is itself interesting, since Arabic isn’t one of Afghanistan’s national languages and Haddad is an Arab surname – but perhaps the evildoer is a naturalized Afghan. In any case, your assignment is to locate Haddad using spy technology to find his cellphone, and then crack the code allowing you to read his hard drive. There, you find that Tariq Haddad is probably planning to blow up Toronto’s airport. The trailer for the show has Tariq Haddad in a hostage situation at the airport, with his gun at a woman’s head. Kessler coolly tells him this is nothing but suicide. And it’s hard to imagine how any of it can end well.
Casting immigration agents as action heroes fighting fictional threats covers up what they really do. They aren’t sexy action heroes keeping the country safe. They are bureaucrats who deport people who overstay their visas, pull children out of school to deport them and their parents, hand Canadian citizens off to other countries be tortured for ten months, and raid churches to deport people trying to claim sanctuary. They terrorize a whole class of people who live and work in the West without status, exploited and abused by employers, invisible and unable to participate because if they were to live openly they would be deported. The “good guys” profit from the labor of these people who are unable to claim their rights because they live in fear of immigration agents. The whole thing is all the more sordid because Canada’s international behavior, like other wealthy countries, helps create conditions in which people have to flee their homes and be exploited and live in fear. Once they are on this side of The Border, these people are illegal (or, if they are on some limited special work visa, partially legal), without rights, subject to arbitrary power. A documentary like Min Sook Lee’s “El Contrato” can show something of this reality, as can a feature film like Ken Loach’s “Bread and Roses” or Stephen Frears’s “Dirty Pretty Things” (3). But in such stories, immigration agents aren’t heroes. They are the first line of defense of a rotten system.
For all its seeming moral complexity, “The Border” thinks it knows who the bad guys are and thinks it knows that they aren’t us. But there is no way out of this war that doesn’t reject these very premises. “Bad guys” are those who kill and torture and bomb and starve to achieve their ends, regardless of what passports they carry or where they were born. The more powerful they are, the badder they can be. And on the other hand, the thousands of American victims of 9/11, the million Iraqi victims of the US war on Iraq and the uncounted tens of thousands of Afghan victims of the US/Canada/NATO war on Afghanistan all deserve to be counted, with dignity and proportion. Everything that works against that sense of proportion, the CBC’s new show included, is going to keep us fighting this senseless and yes, evil, war, longer.
1) See Jim Miles’s review of this book for ZNet: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13013
2) Thomas Walkom’s reporting on this case has been the best, though he makes the important point that he and other reporters have been denied access to information needed to make a proper report.
3) For El Contrato, see the description and order it here: http://www.nfb.ca/collection/films/fiche/?id=51087. For “Bread and Roses”, here: http://www.britfilms.com/britishfilms/catalogue/browse/?id=D5FD9B420eeaf2E8F3pWjPCEEA71. For “Dirty Pretty Things”, here. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0301199/.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org