Compromises and consistency

Kathy English, the Toronto Star‘s Public Editor, recalls what happened when the family of Je Yell Kim, “a dental technician in his 50s who was held in Communist North Korea on vague charges relating to ‘national security,'” begged the newspaper not to report on his plight on grounds “that doing so could jeopardize negotiations to free him.” Short version: no dice.

Kim’s daughter … called my office crying inconsolably and asking why the Star disregarded her pleas. I explained what [Asia bureau chief Bill] Schiller had already told her: that the incarceration of a Canadian by a foreign government was an issue of important public interest in Canada. So, too, was the question of what Canadian authorities were doing to secure his release. I added that as information about her father’s plight had already been posted on the Internet, it was likely that other journalists would report it, perhaps with less sensitivity than Schiller, who conveyed the family’s concerns about publicity.

Well that was awkward, wasn’t it? And is it just me, or is that part about, well, maybe other media outlets will report on it too, and they’re not as nice as we are, squirm-inducingly weak? Kim’s situation and Mellissa Fung’s aren’t particularly analogous, but in each case a request for silence was made and in only one was it granted. It just proves that any explanation of the media blackout that doesn’t include a proviso along the lines of, “look, we make decisions in each individual case in the heat of the moment, not according to some kind of scientific formula, so contradictions are bound to appear,” is doomed to fail.

What really surprises me at this point, though, is that the majority seems to be pretty much okay with Afghan officials picking up relatives of alleged kidnappers and threatening their well-being to secure the release of a Canadian hostage. We don’t even know what happened to these people, after all. We may never. And it could have been just about anything.

It’s not that I object. In a Platonic universe I would, but in an Afghan one I definitely don’t. It’s just that dissecting the minute legal ramifications of every Canadian manoeuvre in Afghanistan has become something of a national pastime. This is a country where it took a Federal Court judge (as opposed to common sense, I mean) to declare that Afghans captured by Canadian forces “do not have rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” and whose Supreme Court may yet have to weigh in on that matter. Our human rights watchdogs are obsessed with the legal and moral implications of what we do in Afghanistan, and what our presence there causes to be done on our behalf, as they should be. And yet, as far as I can see, none of the big ones has yet weighed in on the matter of people being rounded up by authorities and held as bargaining chips to secure the release of a Westerner. Seems odd, is all, especially when you consider how much time they’ve spent demanding Afghans be afforded the same rights in the wilds of Kandahar Province as Canadians enjoy in the wilds of Saskatchewan.

Conspicuously absent throughout Canada’s entire mission in Afghanistan has been a coherent information strategy from the government (unless you count “lie and/or obfuscate until hopelessly cornered, then clam up,” as a strategy). In the same pragmatic spirit I’m willing to have Afghan authorities pursue Fung’s kidnappers using their own rules, and not Canada’s, I’m willing to accept the Canadian government deliberately keeping information from its citizens in the name of national security. That’s how it’s always worked in wartime.  But people used to accept that, I’m sure, far more than they do now, when information is vastly more accessible as a general rule. And so we’ve reached an uncomfortable situation, it seems to me, where the government is committed to keeping information from Canadians, but not to explaining the need for it to do so. Witness the Prime Minister’s “no ransom,” “no political prisoners,” “no dangerous criminals” line when, as Norman Spector observed somewhere on this website, he could far more easily have said national security precluded his discussing it. He’d rather take a thousand-to-one longshot on a half-truth paying off—did he not foresee that Fung might one day tell her own tale?—than be forthright about not being forthright.

Likewise, the government is committed to accepting various uncomfortable compromises in principle on the ground in Afghanistan—notably involving detainee transfers—but whenever one comes to light it hits the papers like a bomb because nobody’s ever really talked to Canadians about the realistic prospects for success in Afghanistan. What might it look like? What can we reasonably achieve for Afghan women? What’s are reasonable conditions to hope for in the country’s prisons? Will Canadian journalists and NGOs get preferential treatment, or will they have the same rights as your average local goatherd? Clearly none of the three governments who’ve presided over this war trust Canadians to mull over and accept the compromises that need to be made, and they might have been right not to. But our relative satisfaction at the conditions of Fung’s rescue suggests to me the opposite—that Canadians can be just as pragmatic as any other country’s citizens in pursuit of a good cause, if given the chance. You don’t have to tell them every last thing, but nor can you repeatedly insult their intelligence.

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