Peace, Democracy and Academic Freedom – Aug. 2, 2017

The following are two versions of an opinion piece I wrote for the Lethbridge Herald. The condensed version was published on July 15, 2017, here. The full unpublished version is immediately below. If you’re short on time, scroll down until you find the condensed version.

Peace, Democracy, and the Academic Freedom of University Professors

Armed forces can be used for three purposes: aggression, defence, and peacekeeping. We Canadians are peace loving, and do not want our armed forces to be used for aggression. But we do want our forces to be used for defence, and, with reservations, for peacekeeping.

For several decades after World War II we offered our services as peacekeepers. When the Suez crisis erupted in 1956, Canada’s secretary of state for External Affairs, Lester Pearson, seized the opportunity for Canada to play a role in United Nations peacekeeping operations. Thereafter we participated in similar operations, sometimes with pride, though often with misgivings. We were very troubled, for example, by our inability to prevent the 1994 massacres in Rwanda.

Decisions about the use of armed forces are complicated. Most citizens are busy with their everyday lives and do not have the time to do careful investigations of the world’s conflict situations. We rely on our leaders to gather relevant information and in good faith to do their best to act in accord with our peaceful intentions.

The argument is often made that democracies tend to be more peaceful than other forms of government. The leaders of democracies need to seek broad public support before going to war. They are therefore more constrained than non-democratic states by the need to persuade the populace that the use of force is justified. Democratic debate, so the argument goes, helps in the formation of better policy.

There is a significant flaw in this argument. The constraint imposed by the need to persuade can be gotten around by the use of deception. Anyone who studies conflict knows that leaders are often impelled to mislead the public in order to manufacture consent for their use of force. We all remember the fears generated by the George W. Bush administration about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The fears proved to be unfounded, but led to the second American invasion of that unfortunate country. Was that a pre-emptive war of defence, or was it a war of aggression, initiated by means of deception, perhaps having something to do with access to oil?

The tendency of politicians to deceive can be mitigated by certain institutional arrangements. One of these is the university, which provides resources and time for professors to study things in depth, far beyond what most ordinary citizens are normally able to do. We cannot rely on professors to always be right, but, if their academic freedom is protected, we can expect them to produce well-considered perspectives. They inject these perspectives into the marketplace of ideas, thus enabling us citizens to assess and support better policies. This is true of many issues, but especially those concerning the use of armed force.

Universities grant tenure to professors who have gone through a rigorous process to demonstrate that they deserve it. This means that they cannot be dismissed for disagreeing with those in power, or for opposing popular opinion. Tenure has its flaws, but it performs an essential function in mitigating cultural blindness. Even the most courageous of professors cannot protect us from illusions if they can be dismissed for dissent. Academic freedom, and the institution of tenure that protects it, is not a perk granted to certain individuals for having achieved high status. It is, rather, a derivative of the responsibility of the university to protect us from being blinkered by propaganda.

Recently Canada produced a long-awaited new defence policy. The report, which can be found online is titled “Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy”. It includes a commitment of $4.5 million to the academic community for programs such as scholarships for Masters and Post-Doctoral fellows. It is to be expected that this will tend to support existing government policies. In view of this, one of the last things that universities should do is dismiss professors who dissent from existing policies, thus leaving the door wide open to unhindered manipulation of the public.

Consider these remarks in the context of the longest war that Canada has ever been engaged in, the war in Afghanistan. We got involved because, on the day after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, our Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, telephoned President Bush to offer our “complete support”. Given what we knew then surely that was the right thing to do.

On the same day as the attack Ehud Barak, formerly the Prime Minister of Israel, appeared on BBC television, suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network was a prime suspect. He urged engaging in a “war on terror”, with 5 countries as targets: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Later that day, on NBC, Paul Bremer, who became the administrator of Iraq during the first years of occupation, also suggested bin Laden as the culprit.

Several times bin Laden categorically denied that he was responsible for 9/11. The United States, through its relations with Pakistan, communicated with the Taliban government of Afghanistan and demanded that bin Laden be handed over. The Taliban replied that they were ready to cooperate if the U.S. would provide evidence that bin Laden was guilty. The U.S. declined. Then the Taliban said okay, we’ll hand him over to a third country, but please do not attack us. The U.S. said it was too late.

Tim Russert of NBC asked Secretary of State Colin Powell if evidence was forthcoming for the American people. Powell said yes, that a white paper was on its way, but reversed himself a day later. The white paper never appeared.

Evidence of bin Laden’s guilt, produced after the onset of the war, has not been substantial. It is true that the 9/11 Commission cites confessions from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but these were extracted under torture, and torture victims will say anything to make their torturers stop. It is true that tapes were released which appear to show bin Laden himself claiming responsibility, but there are strong reasons to believe that the tapes were faked.

On October 7, 2001, the U.S., together with the United Kingdom, launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan, and Canada joined in with other NATO countries in early December of that year. For 12 years we fought. 165 Canadians were killed, and at least 70 soldiers killed themselves after returning home.

It was different in March 2003 when the U.S., together with the “coalition of the willing”, invaded Iraq. Chretien was skeptical about the Bush and Blair administrations’ claims that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and wisely refused Canada’s military participation.

It seems that nothing good has come from the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. Freedom and democracy have not prevailed.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria have all been massively devastated by war. Tens of millions have been killed, and many more displaced. In Afghanistan, despite the loss of about 150,000 lives, the Taliban strives to return to power and controls substantial swathes of territory. Obama tried to wind down the American presence, but, 16 years after the launch of “Operation Enduring Freedom” the Trump administration is considering a new surge of troops, and requesting participation from Canada.

If Canadian citizens are to get a clearer grasp of how we should be conducting foreign policy we would do well to face the possibility that we were duped into a war of aggression in Afghanistan. This is not a possibility we like to entertain, as it offends our sense of being intelligent well-meaning people. It is not a possibility that politicians can afford to give voice to, as it undercuts their credibility and thus any power they might have to do good. But universities have a responsibility to consider this possibility. The last thing they should do is discourage any professor who attempts to undertake this responsibility.

Suppose a university professor comes to the conclusion that we were duped and turns out to be right. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if he were to be dismissed for trying to bring us to our senses? But what if he were wrong? True, he might mislead a few people for awhile. But he would also provoke others into investigating more thoroughly so as to demonstrate his error. Thus the official narrative would receive a more substantial underpinning, and people would come to believe the official narrative for good reasons to believe it, and not just because everybody else believes it. Whether the professor is right or wrong, it would be a mistake to dismiss him.

The harm done when a controversial professor is dismissed is not restricted to the influence of that professor alone. A chill is instilled in professors everywhere, and not just on the one controversial topic. Without tenure self-censorship becomes the rational approach to everything in the academic world. Diversity of thought in the marketplace of ideas dries up. Democratic decision-making becomes stupid. Everyone suffers.

Academic freedom, and the key to preserving it, tenure, is an essential element of a democratic society. It helps to save us from mass delusion and from perpetrating massive injustice.

 

Peace, Democracy, and the Academic Freedom of University Professors – Condensed Version

We Canadians are peace loving. We want our armed forces to be used for defence, and, in certain situations, for peacekeeping. But we do not want them to be used for unnecessary aggression.

Most citizens are busy with their everyday lives.  We don’t have the time to do careful investigations of the world’s conflict situations. We rely on our leaders to gather relevant information and to do their best to act in accord with our peaceful intentions.

Democracies are often thought to be more peaceful than other forms of government because their leaders need to get broad public support before going to war.  This tends to constrain them, or so the argument goes.

There is a significant flaw in this argument.  Leaders can overcome normal democratic constraints through deception. Anyone who studies the history of conflict knows that such deception is not uncommon. We all remember the fears generated by the George W. Bush administration about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The fears proved to be unfounded, but led to the second invasion of that unfortunate country. Was that a pre-emptive war of defence, or was it a war of aggression to ensure access to oil?

Citizens of a democracy need ways to keep their politicians honest. One of these ways is the preservation of academic freedom in universities. Of course we can’t rely on professors to always be right, but, if they don’t have to fear losing their jobs, we can expect them to produce well-considered alternatives to mainstream views. When such alternatives enter the marketplace of ideas it helps us citizens to think through and support better policies.

The primary arrangement that preserves academic freedom is tenure.  It is granted to professors who have gone through a rigorous process to demonstrate their clear reasoning ability and respect for evidence.  Tenure means that a professor cannot be fired for disagreeing with those in power, or for opposing popular opinion. It has its flaws, but it performs an essential function in preventing and overcoming cultural blindness. It’s not just a mark of high status, but has the purpose of protecting us from being blinkered by propaganda.

Consider this in the context of the longest war that Canada has ever been engaged in, the war in Afghanistan. We got involved because, on the day after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, our Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, telephoned President Bush to offer our “complete support”. Given what we knew then surely that was the right thing to do.

On the same day as the attack Ehud Barak, formerly the Prime Minister of Israel, appeared on BBC television, suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network was a prime suspect. He urged engaging in a “war on terror”, with 5 countries as targets: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Later that day, on NBC, Paul Bremer, who became the administrator of Iraq during the first years of occupation, also suggested bin Laden as the culprit.

Several times bin Laden categorically denied that he was responsible for 9/11, but the United States demanded that the Taliban government of Afghanistan hand him over. The Taliban replied that they would cooperate if the U.S. would provide evidence that bin Laden was guilty. The U.S. refused to do so, but attacked instead.

On October 7, 2001, the U.S., together with the United Kingdom, launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan. Canada joined in with other NATO countries in early December of that year. For 12 years we fought. 165 Canadians were killed, and at least 70 soldiers killed themselves after returning home.

Yet it has never been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks.

It seems that nothing good has come from the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. Freedom and democracy have not prevailed.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria have all been massively devastated by war. In Afghanistan the Taliban strives to return to power and controls substantial swathes of territory. Now the Trump administration is considering a new surge of troops, and is requesting participation from Canada.

Canadian citizens would do well to face the possibility that we were misled into a war of aggression in Afghanistan. This isn’t something that is easy to think about, as it offends our sense of being intelligent well-meaning people. It is not a possibility that politicians can afford to give voice to, as it undercuts their credibility and thus any power they might have to do good. But universities do have a responsibility to consider this. The last thing they should do is discourage any professor who attempts to consider it.

Suppose a university professor comes to the conclusion that we were misled. If this conclusion is right wouldn’t it be unfortunate if he were to be dismissed for trying to make the truth known? But what if he were wrong? True, he might mislead some for awhile. But he would also provoke others into investigating more thoroughly. Thus, if the official narrative is true it would receive a more substantial underpinning, and provide us citizens with good reasons to believe it as opposed to simply accepting it because it’s what we we’ve been told. Whether the professor is right or wrong, it would be a mistake to dismiss him.

The harm done when a controversial professor is dismissed is not restricted to the influence of that professor alone. A chill is instilled in professors everywhere, and not just on the one controversial topic. Without tenure self-censorship becomes the rational approach to everything in the academic world. Diversity of thought in the marketplace of ideas dries up. Democratic decision-making becomes stupid. Everyone suffers.

Academic freedom, and the key to preserving it, tenure, is an essential element of a democratic society. It helps to save us from mass delusion and from perpetrating massive injustice.

 

3 thoughts on “Peace, Democracy and Academic Freedom – Aug. 2, 2017

  1. One of my readers,Jane Clark, President of the Lawyers’ Committee for 911 Inquiry, Inc.(https://lawyerscommitteefor9-11inquiry.org/), had trouble adding a comment to this page and emailed me, saying

    “I appreciate what you are writing here, and perhaps would also encourage you to indicate that the FBI themselves have openly admitted the U.S. Justice Department cannot bring a legal indictment against Osama Bin Laden because there is not enough evidence to do so, and thus the issue of “who did what” is still under examination.”

    She’s right about the FBI. Numerous discussions about this can be found on the internet.

    One important source is the testimony of the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, (see https://fas.org/irp/congress/2002_hr/050802mueller.html) testifying before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary on May 8, 2002, in which he says:

    “In our investigation, we have not yet uncovered a single piece of paper either here in the U.S. or in the treasure trove of information that has turned up in Afghanistan and elsewhere that mentioned any aspect of the September 11th plot.”

    Another important source is the report of Ed Haas of the Muckraker Report (see http://www.muckrakerreport.com/id267.html), after contacting the FBI in June 2006. Ed Haas says this:

    “The Muckraker Report spoke with Rex Tomb, Chief of Investigative Publicity for the FBI. When asked why there is no mention of 9/11 on Bin Laden’s Most Wanted web page, Tomb said, “The reason why 9/11 is not mentioned on Usama Bin Laden’s Most Wanted page is because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11.”

    A few of the many links with further details and discussion are the following:

    See the text below the youtube video, The US Justice Department Lacks Evidence To Indict Bin Laden For 9/11 Attacks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhGC9kYNuOY).

    See George Dance’s commentary at The Nolan Chart: FBI: No hard evidence linking Bin Laden to 9/11 (https://www.nolanchart.com/article3419-fbi-no-hard-evidence-linking-bin-laden-to-911-html).

    See the answers to the question on Quora: Is there any evidence of Osama bin Laden’s guilt in the 9/11 attacks? (https://www.quora.com/Is-there-any-evidence-of-Osama-bin-Ladens-guilt-in-the-9-11-attacks)

    Like

  2. We have reviewed all the details of 9/11,now it is necessary that the Justice demands answers to the politicians responsible for the tragedy

    Like

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