Sunday, January 28, 2007

Here's How the Other Half Lives, Mr. Arar

I don't normally get too personal with this blog, but today the Maher Arar story hit me in a way that was very close to home. There's something about this story that just seems to bring out the worst -- and the best -- in people. Glenn Greenwald, the blogosphere's best legal writer, did an absolutely bang-up job talking about the issue. I did some banging while talking about the issue with my family today, too, but the banging in question was more like my head exploding...repeatedly.

It went a little something like this:

I made the mistake of going over to a family gathering today and got in a huge argument with almost the entire rest of my family. Before the argument started, they were all talking about how, while it was good that Maher Arar had gotten some compensation, he'd gotten way too much compensation, and maybe a million dollars would have been fair, but ten and a half was way too much, and it's all just a bullshit political stunt of Harper's (agreed*, but it was one he managed to finesse quite well -- he got off easy). Someone raised the point that he'd gotten as much compensation as he had, they thought, precisely because he's a Syrian-born Muslim Canadian, and thereby requiring "special treatment."

I made the mistake of saying that I thought Maher Arar didn't get nearly as much compensation as he should have, on the grounds that the Canadian government lied to the US government -- the RCMP head in charge of the case perjured himself, either accidentally or on purpose while testifying against Arar and resigned in disgrace), whereupon Arar was kidnapped by US authorities (against his wishes and without the knowledge of the Canadian government, who thought he was going to be returned to Canada), and you know the rest.

The reason I think Arar got very little in the way of compensation is because as near as I can tell, "terrorist" is the new "pedophile." Go down for a rap like that, and your life might as well be over. (Incidentally, I happen to know someone who was actually framed on a pedophile rap by a parent with mental problems, and the list of things he just can't do is unreal.) So I don't think the comparison is really all that out of line. As far as I can tell, the RCMP, CSIS, DFAIT, and DHS basically ended Arar's career for him. I figure very few people would want to hire him for the job for which he's been trained now. The corporate rationale would probably be that he's "too controversial" to "fit" with the organisation. The down-deep rationale, in our profoundly closetedly bigoted society, is that half of everyone either won't remember that he was completely cleared (so he's, as my mom said, "that terrorist guy"), or else they won't care. My mom even said that he basically deserves what he got because "he must have done something to justify being on a watch list in the first place," and "he was in the US, and acting suspicious."

Aside: Money Talks, Bullshit (and Stephen Harper) Walks: I think that another economic rationale for paying him a hefty compensation is that they not only owe him for lost wages as a result of their screw-up, but they owe him for lost wages at the end of his career. Also, if they have, as I suspect, managed to end his career as a computer programmer, they owe him a reasonable sum based on a rational projection of his future income. This data is reasonably easy to derive; I could probably do a creditable job of it using and Google, in about a half-hour. (I'd need some time to crunch numbers since I'm dyscalculic.) Further, that's not even taking into account punitive damages (which ought, in this case, to be genuinely punitive, I think) or the dollar value (whatever that might be) of pain and suffering inflicted. The family's economic argument was that a person can (according to them) live entirely comfortably for the rest of their lives (even with three children) on a million dollars, so giving him a million dollars, so that he would live comfortably for the rest of his life, would have been fair. Or right, or something. (I would dispute the million dollar figure, since Arar is 34, and he has an awful lot of expected lifespan in front of him. Good god, Maher Arar is more or less my age. Jesus Murphy.) Nevertheless, that was their idea, and they were sticking to it.

(Mom: "Oh, he's laughing all the way to the bank." Me: "They threw him in a hole in the ground and tortured him for a year! Tell you what... If someone offered you a deal where they said, hey, we'll give you ten-point-five million dollars, but you have to let us fly you halfway around the world, throw you in a hole in the ground, and beat you bloody with electrical cables every day for a year, would you take it? I don't think so!")

The family's feelings were that because he is a Muslim and not Canadian-born, therefore he must obviously be a "suspicious person." Because he's obviously a "suspicious person," then it's basically okay that he was kidnapped to Syria and tortured, or if not basically okay, then not a major issue, and besides which, it was the Liberals' (as in the Liberal Party, for my American readers -- they're not, themselves, especially liberal) fault anyway.

My mom's major beef was also that because his case made it through the courts fairly quickly, it must be because he's getting "special treatment" because he's a minority. My mom was particularly adamant that he should have had to "wait his turn in the court system" and that it was a "crime" that other cases have been pending for a long time while his was resolved fairly quickly. The level of (wilful?) ignorance this reveals about the workings of the court system, and about legal cases in general, is mind-boggling.

She mentioned one particular case where a woman was accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting, and said it had been going on for 13 years now, and why did Maher Arar get "special treatment" to have his case resolved so fast? Interestingly enough, when I asked her about specific details of the case, she couldn't really tell me, but obviously it was really, really important. I asked if the RCMP had shot the woman and if it was an international incident, but she didn't see the difference between an official mistake and a garden-variety homicide.

Not only that, but in hindsight, I realise that there are all sorts of reasons why cases get held up. Maybe the discovery process was taking a long time. Maybe someone's been studiously avoiding the process server. Maybe a key witness has refused to testify. Maybe the police bungled the initial investigation. Maybe forensic re-evaluations have needed to be done. Maybe one or other of the parties filed a motion to postpone, for one reason or other. MMaybe there's a huge backlog of cases in that court jurisdiction for the particular court that has authority in those particular cases. Who knows?

Eventually, and through a long and complex process known as Conservative Argumentation Tactic #2 (when the liberal refutes your points, change the subject and/or move the goalposts), the conversation disintegrated into my entire family telling me that white people are the only group left that are discriminated against, and my dad saying that as a "White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male**, I would have a harder time getting a job than a black man," and my sister saying that only black people are really racist anymore, and the existence of the Million Man March proves it. But of course, she's not racist, right, and none of my family is racist, right? (Mom: "Some of my best friends are black. I work in a black woman's pocket for three months every year!")

I mentioned a couple of studies that were done, first the one where an identical resume was shopped around (5000 times!!), with a "black" name and a "white" name, and the resume with the "white" name got more call-backs, and the second one where white ex-convicts got more job offers than black men with no criminal records, and my sister said, "Yeah, well, I'd have to see that study." (As if my sister, who is a vocational/technical-college dropout with no social sciences background could really evaluate the validity and rigour of a study, phft!)

Then she called me an asshole for having an argument with people at my grandfather's birthday party, which probably wasn't smart, but I hate to see my family basically making racial slurs at people, and the whole rest of it. I can't help it. I was raised in a racist, conservative place, and blatant, in-your-face white supremacism (albeit couched in the nicest possible terms; it's not like my family would ever join a militia or a neo-Nazi group) drives me nuts.

Assholery: Who brought up the goddam subject in the first place, and started saying bonehead stupid thing piled on bonehead stupid thing? Yeah, if I were an easier-going sort of a person, and/or I hadn't had a couple drinks, I probably would have kept my mouth firmly shut and gone for a walk or something. Judgement error, and yes, assholery offenses on my part against domestic tranquility, but ferchrissakes, don't try to tell me white privilege doesn't exist. Especially when you're outright claiming that there's something special about being white in the first place. Why be a white supremacist (even a gentle suburban white supremacist) if there's nothing in it for you?

Aside: I Get Something Out of It, But I Try Not To Put Anything Into It: Even I realise that white privilege more than likely benefits me. I actually spend quite a bit of time thinking (and maybe even being grateful) for both white and having inherited class privilege. (I keep trying to figure out whether being white trumps being disabled, or whether being behaviourally middle-class trumps being white, in terms of where someone might sit in the power hierarchy, but the only answer I can come up with is "it depends on the situation, I guess.") I'm already dealing with enough problems, being a somewhat unusually intelligent female with a disability; I don't really want to know what it would be like to have to add racism to that, as well. If that makes me a bigot, I guess I'm a bigot. My apologies. I also say "inherited class privilege" because I grew up in an upper-middle-class type environment (albeit first-generation middle class, which is a different experience than coming from a family that has been middle-class longer), and so, despite having an actual income level that puts me economically into the proletariat (and there's an argument to be made that even though I work in "the professions," I have no managerial authority and thus am "working class" that way, too; I tend to support that hypothesis, for various reasons including the odious "work-for-hire"), I can adequately pass for a middle-class professional such that people frequently confuse me with one. (I even used to refer to myself as "a potsmoking punk posing as professional.") So there is that. I'm not unaware that this dynamic isn't fraught, but I'm working on it.

So there it is. Mr. Arar, when they ruined your life, they started a chain of events that basically will cause my entire family not to speak to me for weeks. Isn't collateral damage a beautiful thing? All of us who've been in the situation, great or small, can get together some September 11th one of these years (and I'll buy you a Coke), and we can all bitch about how nineteen guys -- that we never even met! -- driving airplanes in a foreign country still managed to fuck us over anyhow.


* Do read the link under there. Mike in Ottawa writes a memory-refreshing post about how, before the Commission of Inquiry released its findings, and before Harper was forced to behave like civilised folks because of his minority government (back when he was still the Canadian Reform AAlliance Party [yes!] Official Opposition), he and his people were convinced that Maher Arar was a terrorist, and were pissing themselves that the US would think they were "weak on national security" and so on. (You realise, Mr. Harper, that digital archives indisputably exist, and it is possible for you to be called on your words years later even if they didn't get captured on videotape, and not just by people who have pricey Lexis-Nexis subscriptions, right?)

** You could hear the capital letters. I'm not making this up.


Blogger Deacon Barry said...

If you're family are getting angry, it's probably because your points are getting through their armour and disturbing their comfort zone.

10:18 AM  
Blogger elly said...

Have you checked out :)

12:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My family has started to sound a bit more racist than I remember them being, which I think is related to the constant barage of fear-mongering from the media. I mean, they're leftish social progressives. They always couch it into 'these people and their religious fanatic ways are going to tear down our secular society'. Here in Quebec the talks are mostly about Arabs/Muslims, and Hassidic Jews (due to some clashes in Montreal with the Hassidic community and people thinking they're asking for too much 'special privileges').

Even then, they fully agree that Maher Arar was a victim of the RCMP and its ham-fisted ways. Of course, they are separatists and remember the October Crisis, so they already are inclined to think that the RCMP was lying when they call him a terrorist, since they've done that plenty during the whole FLQ incident.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

It's funny you should mention Hassidic Jews in your post. One of the talking points I keep hearing going around on the US political boards is that Ontario enacted Sharia law, when the exact opposite was true. Under Premier McGuinty, a petition was made to have Sharia courts as an alternative to family arbitration and equivalent to Catholic and Jewish religious courts that already existed in the province. Not only did Premier McGuinty disallow Sharia courts, but he said that the Catholic and Jewish courts (Beit Din, or Beis Din, depending on who's talking) had to be shut down.

Speaking as an outsider, I noticed a distinct undercurrent of racism in the separatiste movement anyhow, but I would be unsurprised if it's getting worse. My parents remember the FLQ Crisis quite well; my dad was on a course in Ottawa when it happened, and my mom left the hotel room to find soldiers in the corners of the hallways in the Chateau Laurier.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous bellatrys said...

interrobang, I can safely say from both sides of the equation that swallowing it and saying nothing in the interests of "the family" is more painful in the long and short runs. If it hurts them, then at a minimum either a) they learn to not be aggressive assholes to you or b) you get the benefit of not having to be around aggressive racist assholes because you're not invited back, and since when it's your own family being retrograde jerks is even worse than strange retrograde jerks, it can only be a plus. At a maximum, you've made them stop and think a bit - even if (like my family) they're too pig-headed to admit it to you at the time.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Thanks, bellatrys. I hope you're right. I can't afford to really have them cut me off; they've been keeping me alive for a good portion of the last ten years or so. On the other hand, I can't just shut up and let them spout ignorant shit like that, either. Damned if I do, damned if I don't.

12:50 AM  
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