Support the Dominion
Support the Dominion
Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better
New Star Books: Vancouver, 2007
ROME, ITALY—East Vancouver author Matt Hern wasn’t talking about Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Games when he penned Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better several years ago, but he may as well have been.
Indeed, the book should have been required reading for each security agency linked to the three levels of government as it contemplated delivering a “safe and secure” Winter Olympics without descending into total security hysteria. Alas, the book never made the must-read list of the Integrated Security Unit (ISU), the organization created by the RCMP to coordinate Games security.
The ISU’s mandate, at least as they understood it, was to ensure that absolutely nothing could go wrong during the Olympics and Paralympics. The ISU began by considering possible “threats” based on the evaluations of the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC) of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). ITAC identified three key concerns: foreign-inspired terrorism, crime, and domestic protests—and pretty much in that order. However, long before the Games had arrived, the order had shifted and the fear of protest became paramount. Vocal critics of the Olympics found themselves followed, monitored, surveilled, visited, and, in more than a few cases, intimidated and threatened by undercover ISU agents.
In the end, nearly $1 billion was spent on Games security; thousands of police from across the country patrolled Vancouver and thousands more soldiers patrolled cold, wet, mountain slopes. Close-circuit cameras (CCTV) in the downtown core monitored people 24 hours a day and the city and province passed egregious laws that violated our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And despite all of this, the authorities could not, or chose not to prevent the breaking of a few Hudson’s Bay windows during the second day of the protests.
In hindsight, it all sounds ridiculous. And it was. Any half-bright ISU agent (and there were a few) or any Vancouver Police Department deputy chief could have done a more realistic assessment of the real threats and responded appropriately—and far more parsimoniously—by realizing that the assessment itself was badly overblown. The massive preparations were so over-the-top and out-of-proportion that the entire plan should have been significantly scaled back.
But nothing was scaled back. All threats were considered massive and the response even more so.
Indeed, the state of mind that sees anything and everything as a potential threat is precisely the subject of Watch Yourself. And Hern’s book taps into they ways we respond when we let fear rule our world. This mindset dictates that kids need to be safeguarded from being kids; forget protecting your child from playground equipment and strangers, we need intrusive policing and scores of cameras to keep them safe. We need constant surveillance for our own safety, and adults need to have their habits controlled for their own good too. We have become, in effect, the perfect example of the ultimate security state that is ruled, not by a dark authoritarian presence, but by our own fears. And, one might say, such fears enable and nurture the apparatus that feigns security.
Although Hern did not address the Olympic madness—the five ring circus—his book foreshadows the mentality of a security-obsessed society. “l’d say that the Olympics were a monumental exercise in total securitization,” he told me over the phone after the Vancouver Organizing Committee shut up shop and left town. “Not just the billion-dollar, multi-layered policing effort, nor the sea of CCTVs, nor the endless security guards, nor the reaction to protest, nor the bewildering array of security agencies from all over the globe...” a point well made, I thought, “but all these in combination and the willingness of our elected officials and civic leaders to mobilize a huge swath of citizens—city workers, volunteers, bus drivers, garbage collectors, the media—into a comprehensive exercise in discipline and abhorrence of anything not officially corporatized and cleansed.”
In barely a few breaths, Hern had summarized the detriments of the 2010 Winter Games and pin-pointed its greatest legacy: fear.
He continued: “The effort largely succeed[ed] in moving huge chunks of capital from the common wealth into privatized hands and continued to cleanse the city of working class, radical, alternative and affordable possibilities by insisting on a relentlessly ‘safe,’ contained, controlled, clean and tourist-slash-investor friendly ethic where nothing out of order is permitted.”
I write this from Rome, a city that is alive in ways that Vancouver may never be in spite of the aching need to feel world-class. Indeed, much of this angst drove the Olympic venture from the beginning. While we still debate the role of police in Canadian society and worry that kids might fall off the jungle gym, here in Rome kids play outside unsupervised and wander into bars with their parents while people picnic with wine in full view of the constabulary. And who could care less? The streets are filled with people day and night, drunk and sober, happy and sad. Romans have not yet let their fear blind them to the possibilities of being human—a vista that is remarkably refreshing coming from “no fun” Vancouver.
Maybe if we listened to Hern (or simply heeded our own better instincts) and accepted that some risk is the price for being human, we can escape our self-imposed state of fear, a state that is not only sterile, but also soul-destroying.
Chris Shaw is a Vancouver-based neuroscientist, academic and author. He wrote Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, published in 2008 by New Society Publishers.
For a recent example of Canada's security apparatus at work, see the Vancouver Media Co-op's latest coverage of protests and police response at the G8 University Summit in Vancouver over the weekend. Check out the Vancouver Observer's case-in-point of security using fear at these protests.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.