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On the occasion of the twelfth annual
Davis, Markert, Nickerson Symposium on Academic and Intellectual Freedom
Steve Nickerson - October 31, 2002

I had not planned to attend this year's Symposium on Academic and Intellectual Freedom until I read in our local paper that a university researcher had been fired after being named as a "person of interest" in the FBI's investigation into last fall's anthrax attacks. According to his chancellor he was fired not as a judgment of guilt but "in the best interests of [the university]". Surely this is as close as we should get to a repeat of the conditions which this event was established to keep in mind. By attending this year's symposium I had hoped to learn how educated Americans, with a greater than average sensitivity to issues of civil liberty, were interpreting the events since last year's lecture. Perhaps I would be able to add some observations on how it is all perceived outside the US.

On September 11, 2001 I was watching events unfold in New York where, a few months earlier my wife and I had been staying at the Trade Centre Marriot helping with the heritage recording of the nearby J. P. Morgan Bank. People we had worked with might well have been in the area affected, yet my thoughts were not entirely with the victims, they were, as the politicians like to put it "collateral damage". I knew the real casualty would be civil liberty but I could not have anticipated the extent.

For instance, my wife has asked that I not travel to or through the US because of newspaper accounts suggesting a breakdown of the rule of law in this country. One case in particular strikes close to home, that of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was detained as he changed planes in New York. He was deported, but not to Canada, where he lives and under whose passport he was travelling nor to Switzerland where his flight originated as would be customary under international law, but to Syria, a police state he left as a child but to which he owes military service. After disappearing for several weeks he has turned up in a Syrian jail. I too, am a naturalized Canadian, born in a country with compulsory military service for which I did not report.

Another case that has made it into the Canadian press is that of American born Jose Padilla, the so- called "dirty bomber" who was arrested in June. According to reports from the left wing (there is almost nothing current in the mainstream media) he is still being held in solitary confinement in spite of not having been charged with anything. This story triggered a conversation with some colleagues, engineers recently arrived from Iran, who assured me that in their country, where they felt they had almost no personal freedom, a citizen could never be treated in such a way. The revelation in this was that it may well be easier, and safer, to live in a country with odious rules which are followed than in one with exemplary rules which are ignored or changed without warning whenever they get in the way of current policy.

Canada has not yet issued an advisory against travel to the US (though this has been suggested in parliament) and I strongly suspect that I would be at only minimal risk as I am not of the racial or religious profile that is currently being targeted, but how can I be sure, if a new category of citizen like the "enemy combatant" can be created by executive decree and applied to whoever triggers suspicion? So I will stay in Canada where I have a reasonable comfort level with our pretty-good rules and with our government's willingness to abide by them.

In any event bringing these observations to a session on academic freedom is, I suppose, "academic". It doesn't take an intellectual to realize that the academy cannot be free while the general population is unable or unwilling to express its views. Perhaps this is why I was not granted permission to express these concerns to the symposium itself, though more likely it is misguided self-censorship on the part of symposium organizers.

9.11.01 was indeed a terrible event but not so much because of the death toll as because it succeeded so completely. A country priding itself on its dedication to freedom has been tricked by a few dozen fanatics into ignoring international law and the rights of its citizens, striping it of moral authority and leaving it with only its economic and military might to influence world events. Worse yet is the apparent willingness of its populace to accept the new status quo. At least some victims of 9.11.73 fought back when their freedoms and then their neighbours started to disappear.

There are indeed rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and a self-serving disregard for international law, human rights and world opinion. Especially repugnant are those that play on their citizens' belief that their race, religion, economic system or ideology is superior to all others, giving them the right, even the duty, to impose their values on the rest of the world. But those ruled by dictators and tyrants are much less to be feared than those whose citizens follow voluntarily.


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