The Interview and Free Speech

It’s hard to imagine a more bizarre challenge to the notion of freedom of speech than the North Korea-Sony debacle over the still only semi-released film The Interview. For those who might not be aware; in short the film is about a journalist and his producer getting a chance to interview North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and then being tasked by the CIA to kill the young Kim. The movie itself is your standard Seth Rogen stoner flick, involving intellectually adolescent man-children in one of the weirder, but by no means more insightful adventures. As a genre goes, the stoner flick isn’t likely to gain much credibility in the foreseeable future.

But all of that aside, the real interest the film generated wasn’t in its laboured toilet humor and overuse of silly sight gags. It was the alleged response of North Korea, which was to openly condemn the film, and, if the US government is to believed, task an elite group of North Korean hackers with breaking into Sony’s computer network and stealing everything from payroll records to unreleased films to embarrassing executive emails.

More troubling was the threat made by the hacking group that any attempt to release The Interview would lead to terrorist acts. This quickly saw major North American theater chains pull out of showing the film, leading Sony to cancel the film’s release. While it all looks like an extraordinary overreaction (how exactly would North Korea actually carry out a huge terror campaign on US soil), one can understand why theaters reacted this way. They were doubtlessly still edgy after the 2012 Aurora shooting, where a clearly deranged individual, James Holmes, opened fire in a crowded movie theater, killing twelve people.

This inevitably, and not without some justification, lead many commentators to accuse Sony and the theater chains of suppressing free expression based on the alleged threats of a dictator a half a world away. Apart from the implausibility of North Korea mounting a vast series of terror attacks, some have even questioned whether North Korea, whose Internet connection is apparently a single route through China, could mount such an attack. Still, even if Kim Jong-un wasn’t ultimately responsible for the Sony network attack, he must feel himself a very powerful fellow indeed, to have caused the multi-billion dollar film industry in the most militarily powerful nation in the history of the world to fold based on dubious threats of retaliation.

It’s hard for me to condemn either Sony or the theaters. The theaters clearly don’t want to invite attacks that would leave patrons dead or injured. They may be overly risk averse, but so are many industries. If such an attack were to actually happen, the losses for the big chains, both in the court of public opinion and likely in civil court, would be monumental. Why go to the mat over a Rogen-Franco film? As to Sony, well, if no one will show one of their films, what is it they are supposed to do?

If I have any criticism to make of Sony, it is that they apparently did a screening at the White House, doubtless to get the US Administration’s opinion on a film that portrays in fairly graphic detail the murder of a foreign head of state. While that might seem prudent, I think it was wrong to seek the US Government’s advice, as it gives some truth to North Korea’s complaint that the film was sanctioned by the US Government.

The United States is a free country protected by the First Amendment’s very strong admonition against state interference in citizens’ free expression. Sony and the film’s producers were under no obligation to seek the US Government’s approval, and the US Government was in no position to force the alteration or canceling of the film. By going to the US Administration for an opinion, the film’s producers gave the appearance of deference.

In the end, the wrong is being somewhat put to rights. Google is distributing the film on its streaming service, and a few theaters are screening the film. But the whole episode brings into question not only our growing hysteria over even the most improbable terrorist threats, but also our growing tendency to treat our governments like our keepers. This in the long run could create greater risks for our liberties than the Kim dynasty of North Korea.

What to Do With Western Jihadis?

It’s a question most Western nations now have to face. What to do with Western Jihadis now seeking to head to Syria and Iraq, or worse, planning attacks at home? Is the proper course of action to take away their passports and try to keep an eye on them here? Or is it better to send them on their way, hoping they end up being killed on foreign soil?

The two attacks in the last week on members of the Canadian armed forces, including the spectacular attack at Parliament that saw a gunman make it all the way into the Centre Block, has forced Canada to confront the question directly. At the same time, we’ve been forced to ask “what constitutes a terrorist act?”

Both the attacks that killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec on October 20th and Corporal Nathan Cirillo two days later in Ottawa now appear to have been the work of so-called “lone wolfs”, self-radicalized individuals whose attacks, while inspired by terrorist organizations, cannot be linked to any particular group. These attacks have a good deal in common with the Lee Rigby murder in the United Kingdom in May of 2013.

The first question we have to ask is whether it is even legitimate to call people like Warrant Officer Vincent’s killer, Martin Couture-Rouleau, terrorists. Both he and the Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, appear to have been individuals with troubled pasts, mental health issues who had self-radicalized. Under other circumstances, one would consider these to be failings of mental health services, with little relationship to radicalized individuals getting on planes to Turkey to join ISIS.

However, in both the cases of Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau, they had been deemed individuals of sufficient interest and concern that travel bans had been placed on them. Clearly, the RCMP, CSIS and other agencies felt they were more than simply mentally ill men. In other words, mental health concerns considered, they had been deemed to one extent or another to be would-be Jihadis.

Furthers, the placing of travel bans on the two men seems to have exacerbated their anti-Western sentiments. The leading theory seems to be that, being unable to get or use a passport to fly out of Canada, they directed their anger at domestic targets; in Coitire-Rouleau’s case, two uniformed soldiers in a parking lot in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. In Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, the victim was a reservist standing as an honorary guard at the War Monument in Ottawa.

So were these two men terrorists, or were they mentally ill? I do not see the two questions as being mutually exclusive. Doubtless among the Jihadis fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria are a whole assortment of pathologies; from the mentally ill, to the sociopathic, to the fanatical true believers in the brand of medieval fundamentalist Islamism. Like violent movements throughout history, ISIS attracts all sorts, and it makes little difference to their victims, at home or abroad, whether it is mental illness or fanaticism that motivates their attackers.

That all being said, the question that Western nations have to ask is what do we do with would-be Jihadis heading to the Middle East to join ISIS and other similar groups? The answer some have advocated is simply to allow them to go. The likelihood that they will survive seems fairly low, and once off of our soil, they cease to be a threat. They are no longer our problem.

I disagree with this sentiment, because, at its core, it says “the lives of the citizens of Western democracies are inherently more valuable than the lives of the people of Syria and Iraq.” That these Jihadis may not end up killing Westerners does not mean that they won’t end up killing at all. They will have their victims, and those victims and their families will suffer just as much as the families of the Canadians killed in the recent attacks.

However we deal with ISIS, I believe it is the responsibility of each nation to deal with their own radical Jihadis, and not to simply allow them to go abroad and hurt other people. That means we have to give law enforcement and CSIS the tools they need to better track these individuals, and where we feel they are at such a risk to anyone, whether here or in Iraq, to prevent them from doing so. If they are sufferers of mental health, then perhaps it means more resources to help them out of the dark place they are in. If they are radicalized, then that means more resources for them and their communities. If they are deemed simply to be criminals, then that means courts must step up.

Royal Prerogatives, Executive Powers and War

As most people must be aware of by now, the Canadian government has announced that there are already military experts on the ground in Iraq, and plans to contribute in a larger way to the US-lead campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). In Parliament, this has lead to quite understandable requests by the Opposition for the Government to explain the role it will play in what has become a new coalition of military intervention in Iraq.

It is useful at this juncture to understand the precise nature of military command in Canada, and of Parliament’s role when Canadian military personnel are deployed in combat or support roles. This is important in no small part because many Canadians, having been raised on a steady diet of American TV and film, have some incorrect ideas about what powers reside where when it comes to deployments.

In Canada, like the United Kingdom, a Government’s executive authority flows from the Sovereign, and more directly from the Royal Prerogatives that a Government enjoys the monopoly of access to. The relationship between these two aspects of the Crown; the Sovereign and the Government, are completely integrated and represent the executive level of the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom.

Among the key Royal Prerogatives, descended from ancient times, is the notion that the Sovereign is the Commander-in-Chief of the military and reserves the right to declare war and command the troops. Obviously, in modern monarchies like the UK and Canada, these powers, like the other Prerogatives, are only used on the advice of the Sovereign’s Ministers; or, in the modern parlance, the Government. The command of the armed forces is, in effect, in the hands of the Government.

So what, then, is Parliament’s role?

This, in fact, has been an area of great debate since Charles I rebuffed the notion that his foreign ventures should be held up to Parliamentary scrutiny. Like all the Prerogatives, but perhaps nowhere quite so profoundly, does this longstanding conflict show itself more than when a Government sends its service men and women to war (declared or otherwise).

By long tradition, dating back some three centuries, Parliament retains the right to hold a Government’s prosecution of a war to account. Parliament fields no army itself, does not command the troops, and does not in any direct fashion dictate strategy, alliances (foreign relations being another Prerogative held by the Sovereign on the advice of the Government). However, via its extensive, and by at least some definitions, almost unlimited powers to hold Ministers responsible for their conduct and the conduct of the military chain of command itself, Parliament possesses a significant voice in the prosecution of military campaigns.

By the same token, Governments have long recognized that they have a duty to keep Parliament informed of deployments and of the general conduct of war. Where sensitive information may be revealed, such disclosures may be in camera (behind closed doors). The peoples’ representatives, if not always the people themselves, have long insisted that the Government keep them apprised of military affairs.

As a final power, very seldom used in modern times, Parliament still retains what one might term the “nuclear option”; the revocation of confidence in a Government. A government has never been brought down by its conduct of a war in Canada, but it has occurred in Britain on a handful of occasions; the best known being the defeat of Lord North’s ministry in 1782 over its conduct during the United States War of Independence.

The nature of military command in the Westminster system should be contrasted here with the American system, which, sadly, may be more familiar to many Canadians. While the US President, like the British Sovereign that the office replaced, retains the position of Commander-in-Chief, the actual authority to make a declaration of war resides with Congress. The intent of the US Founding Fathers was to create a check to the Executive’s substantial powers to oversee the conduct of military campaigns by revoking the Executive’s rights to actually unilaterally enter such campaigns.

While this division of powers was most certainly a high-minded ideal, by the time of the US Civil War, it had become clear that a President’s other executive powers all but rendered Congress’s supervisory check impotent. It should also be noted that there is no notion of confidence in the United States government. The only way to remove a President is to either demonstrate permanent mental unfitness or to successfully prosecute an impeachment. Neither is a practical measure for Congress to stop a military action.

All of this leads us to the current debate in Parliament over the sending military personnel to combat Iraq. Partisans on both sides, clearly seeking political advantage from the debate, may try to cast the conduct of the Government and the Opposition in a certain light. An analysis of the nature of the executive powers surrounding the military, and of Parliament’s longstanding right to hold the Government to account, demonstrate that what we are witnessing is both normal and perfectly constitutional. The Sovereign (or their vice-regal representative; namely the Governor General in Canada) retain the Royal Prerogatives, but invoke them only on the advice of the Government. The Government, in turn, is accountable to Parliament. At the end of the day, both the Government and the Opposition must face the voter and explain themselves.

Welcome To My First Post

I’d like to introduce myself. I am the Toadman. I am a student at Thompsons Rivers University in their Distance Education program. One of my courses; Business, Professional and Academic Composition, asks me to create a blog. So here I am, bad pseudonym and all, writing my first blog post.

Without getting too specific, I’m in my early 1940s, a business professional with a good deal of experience but pretty light in the education department (hence going to college at my advanced age). My interests range from pulpy science fiction (the more Golden Age stories the better), through a number of sciences (linguistics and physics, purely as a layman) and particularly politics. The latter is the topic on which I will most likely be pontificating here.

Being a Canadian, I have a particular interest in the structures and traditions of the Westminster parliamentary system; a system I unabashedly believe to be the most stable and malleable of democratic governing systems. If I had to pick a favorite political science book, it would be Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, which possibly more eloquently than any other discusses the parts of the great English compromises, traditions and constitutional principles that gave us our system of government.

So stay tuned. I keep my eye on Canadian, American and British politics and feel compelled at times to write my thoughts. This seems like an awfully good place to do it!