This article orginally appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard, April 23, 2005.
One marvels at the conceit of the Quebec Liberal Party organizers and Montreal advertising executive Jean Brault, who engaged in a multi-million dollar scam -- ostensibly a noiseless patriotic arrangement to keep Quebec Canadian, but now generating a possibly fatal wound for Prime Minister Paul Martin, the Federal Liberals, and Liberals everywhere.
What were the Liberal Party organizers thinking when they initiated the sponsorship program? Certainly they did not consider the political and personal risks involved if and when the secret payments, illegal conflicts of interest and kickbacks, and phony invoices came to light.
The Gomery Commission revealed spectacular malfeasance, reminiscent of late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age politics in the United States. Then, people with scads of money at their disposal -- William Marcy ("Boss") Tweed, Jim Fiske, and Jay Gould come to mind -- felt they could get away with anything. Immense sums also figured prominently in more recent corruption, including Enron, World.com, and Martha Stewart. The Quebec gang, one concludes, must not have read the papers before conducting their scam.
But foolhardiness -- defined here as the willingness to take risks without understanding context and the others involved in the equation -- is far more common than we think. Take, for example, the tragic institutional recklessness in Mayerthorpe AB on March 3, when four rookie RCMP officers went to a farm to arrest James Roszko, well-known for his violent temper, love of guns, and hatred of police. Roszko, in trouble before, was deemed dangerous, and in 2000 had been prohibited by court order from owning firearms. A bailiff's attempt to seize Roszko's truck a day earlier had revealed stolen auto parts and a small marijuana grow-op.
When the RCMP constables went looking for him, Roszko ambushed and killed them, then shot himself. Why, one wonders in retrospect, did the RCMP not allow for potential calamity and send at least a SWAT team?
Another failure to comprehend risk and otherness came a week later in Atlanta, Georgia. Incredibly, a lone female officer was escorting Brian Nichols to a courtroom to stand trial for rape. Nichols overpowered the guard, took her gun, and shot the judge (whose chambers were unlocked), a court reporter, and another officer before fleeing and killing a fourth person. Here, as in Mayerthorpe, the lack of attention to security was almost comedic, though not in its consequences.
As the Gomery Commission suggests, the idea that political and corporate elites know best what is good for Canadians is dubious. As the Quebec conspirators plotted in secret against the public interest, so too did recent U.S. presidential administrations ignore difference and paradigm in confronting terrorism. In the early 1980s much covert CIA support went to Osama bin Laden and his mujahideen during the Afghan War against the Soviet Union, and more quiet U.S. support went to Saddam ("he's a bastard, but he's our bastard") Hussein and Iraq's war against Islamic fundamentalist Iran.
Today these policies seem stunningly shortsighted, devised to secure tactical gain with scant concern for cultural forces operating in both theatres, and potential strategic outcomes. President George W. Bush?s proclamation of victory in Afghanistan and Iraq -- especially his memorable "mission accomplished" speech -- left no room for the vicious insurgent war that erupted in the wake of that Pyrrhic triumph. Indeed, the Iraq undertaking appears far more problematic now in its failure to read Iraqi wishes, with recent troubles as much the responsibility of the Bush presidency as its terrorist adversaries.
The sponsorship sordidness and the American drive into the Middle East sand-trap bring to mind a less-exalted miscalculation by a southern California couple, who in March went to visit a chimpanzee whom they had kept for many years, but who was banished to an animal preserve after biting off a guest's finger. They brought a birthday cake along to celebrate the chimp's birthday. Upon entering the chimps' compound, the man and woman encountered two other chimps who had escaped from their cage. These chimps locked eyes with the man and, protecting their space, attacked the couple.
Before sanctuary officials shot and killed the primates, the man lost a foot, nose, and testicles. His wife escaped with a gashed hand and reported that her husband had tried to reason with the chimps, but failed.
The problem here -- obvious in hindsightwas two-fold. First, the man didn't know that the other chimps were uncaged. Second, he violated their space. He knew his own chimp, but he clearly failed in his attempt to treat the others as reasonable beings.
The chimpanzee saga is a parable, as the distance between the monkey compound and the other episodes is closer than one might think. In their assumption that they operated free from accountability, the sponsorship protagonists reprised the man's misreading of chimp territorialism; the Atlanta sheriff department's failure to recognize Brian Nichols' strength; the RCMP's failure to gauge Roszko's fury; and the Bush administration's misreading of Iraq. None of these events should have occurred. That they did attests to varying forms of arrogance,the inability to respect key variables involved and to define adversaries as inconsequential.
There is a message here. Decision-makers must understand the context of the choices they make, especially in unfamiliar situations. They should recognize that choices based on partial information risk dire outcomes. Indeed, good intentions and noble ends may prove futile if corners are cut in devious ways, or if threats and dubious opportunities are met by escalating the stakes. And money and the power that money confers do not necessarily shield miscreants and crooks from the consequences of their actions.
When ordinary people commit sins, the penalties can be personally painful. When governments and corporations break the rules, the consequences in money and lives can be horrific. The U.S. hoped that triumph in Iraq would herald the march of democracy throughout the Middle East. The Quebec players thought that the sponsorship glitter would strengthen Federalism, orin a more cynical readingat least line the coffers of the Liberal Party. Both assumptions assumed entitlement; and both have exposed far-reaching incompetence.
This vexing amalgam should concern us greatly, for we -- as Canadian taxpayers and neighbours of the new American empire -- are the invisible others at this important juncture in North American history.