On the first day of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre Brazil, the hallways were buzzing with rumours of defections from the North. Top delegates were jumping ship from the World Economic Forum in New York and coming to Porto Alegre instead: a European prime minister, World Bank directors, even corporate executives.
Some never showed up, others did. But debates raged nonetheless about what it all meant. Was it evidence of the Forum's new strength (it attracted some 60,000 participants, after all) or a sign of imminent danger? The World Social Forum was founded last year as an alternative to the annual gathering of the top 1,000 corporations, world leaders and opinion-maker who usually meet in Davos, Switzerland but this year met in New York City.
But with these new high-powered arrivals, the WSF now risked turning from a clear alternative into a messy merger: teams of photographers trailed politicians; market researchers from PricewaterhouseCoopers trolled hotel lobbies, looking for opportunities to "dialogue"; students threw a cream pie at a French minister.
Since the release of The Video, Osama bin Laden's every gesture, chuckle and word has been dissected. But with all the attention on bin Laden, his co-star in the video, identified in the official transcript only as "Shaykh," has received little scrutiny. Too bad, since no matter who he is (he is most commonly identified as the Saudi mujahedin Khaled al-Harbi), he offers a rare window into the psychology of men who think of mass murder as a great game.
A theme that comes up repeatedly in bin Laden's guest's monologues is the idea that they are living in times as grand as those described in the Koran. This war, he observes, is like "in the days of the prophet Muhammad. Exactly like what's happening right now." He goes on to say that, "it will be similar to the early days of Al-Mujahedeen and Al-Ansar (similar to the early days of Islam)." And just in case we didn't get the picture: "it is the same, like the old days, such as Abu Bakr an Othman and Ali and others. In these days, in our times."
Last weekend, while crossing the border back to Ontario from Buffalo, our car was stopped by a customs officer. "What were you guys doing in the States?" he asked. "Do any shopping?" "Okay, have a great day."
Nothing strange here, except for one detail: this man had a U.S. flag on his sleeve. He stopped every car before waving them on to Canadian border guards who repeated the process all over again. It felt like a glimpse into Fortress North America, a not so distant future in which U.S. security officers are the gatekeepers not just of the U.S. border but of the entire continent.
Post September 11, many Canadians see some border integration as the unavoidable price of protecting our $700-billion annual trade relationship with the U.S. Exports now make up 43 per cent of Canada's GDP, up dramatically from 25 per cent a decade ago. Eighty seven per cent of those exports go directly to the U.S. With almost half of our economy now directly dependent on an open border, it's difficult to see how Canada can stand up to U.S. pressure.
Ever since Vancouver hosted the APEC conference in 1997, Canadian politicians have faced a dilemma. How do you clamp down on messy street protests without violating fundamental laws that guarantee freedom of assembly and prohibit political interference with policing?
Post September 11, the answer has revealed itself, as elegant as it is brutal: ditch the laws.
For the past month, civil libertarians and politicians have been duking it out over whether Bill C-36 could be used against political protesters. Justice Minister Anne McLellan says the law is designed to "target terrorists and terrorist groups," and insists it isn't an attempt to crack down on "legitimate political activism and protests," such as the demonstrations during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.
In the face of these assurances, as well as minor amendments to the bill, many have relaxed, convinced that the right to dissent is still protected in Canada. That's because they haven't looked at Canada's other anti-terrorism law, Bill C-35.
On Saturday night, I found myself at a party honouring Nelson Mandela and raising money for his children's fund (I'm still trying to figure out how I ended there). It was a lovely affair and only a very rude person would have pointed out that the party was packed with many of the banking and mining executives who refused to pull their investments out of apartheid-run South Africa for decades.
Mr. Mandela was in Canada this week to receive the highest honour my country has to offer: he was the second person in our history to be made an honorary citizen. So only someone with no sense of timing would have mentioned that, as the Liberal government was honouring Mr. Mandela, it is ramming through an anti-terrorism bill that would have sabotaged the anti-apartheid movement on several fronts had it been in place at the time. (Many other countries are passing similar laws.)