Only the Doors Are Alarmed


Sure, we had woken on Saturday to front-page pictures of fertiliser and electronic wires, and the T-word in big BIG letters. But this was the trash press (think Murdoch). ‘Sensible’ newspapers like the Globe and Mail were highlighting the Government’s intended vote on whether to repeal the same-sex marriage laws. And talkback radio was mostly about the threat to our way of life coming from the recently introduced indoor smoking ban.

"These Torontonians are stoic folk," I thought to myself.

I already knew this, of course. Last time I was here, two years ago, the city was the epicentre of the SARS pandemic in Canada. (My employers had let me come, despite DFAT warnings, after I signed a piece of paper expressly requesting to be allowed to come, presumably operating on the principle that whether I lived or died mattered less than whether they were going to be held liable.)

At that time, too, despite the corpses heaped in the streets, the death carts rumbling, the terrible cries of ‘bring out your dead!’ things had also gone on pretty much as normal. The tourist industry wasn’t happy, but no one else seemed to notice.

But really, this was TERROR! You know, the killing and the panic; the enemy within; the CN Tower crashing to the ground.

As Saturday rolled on, even the ‘responsible’ radio made it clear that something big really had happened. The newspaper calm turned out to be a consequence of the police staging the arrests too late on Friday for the less nimble papers to catch up. They had issued a press release, of course, but somehow the Globe and Mail had missed it.

Over the course of the week, the story started to unfold. Seventeen men, some of them too young to be named, had been arrested after a two-year investigation and charged with planning to kill as many people as they could. All of them were Muslims; one was an imam; and the killing was intended apparently to protest the violence in Palestine and Iraq. They were all Canadian-born (‘homegrown’ was the preferred term).

Experts surfaced. Grumpy members of the public were heard.

And yet, that Saturday night at Woody’s (the gay bar in Toronto viewers of Queer As Folk would recognise), most of the talk was about the smoking ban and how rapidly the $70,000 glass box within which smokers had been confined for the past two years had been removed. That and how cute Canadian boys are, but that’s a different story.

Woody’s in Toronto

I remember noticing that, in order to stop anyone sneaking out for a quick fag [feel free to insert your own tacky joke here; some things are too obvious even for me] the emergency exits at Woody’s had been issued with shiny new signs: ‘This Door is Alarmed’.

"Well," I remember thinking, "I’m glad someone is."

A week into the news cycle and I finally feel like I’m getting a handle on Toronto’s calm response. Part of it is that no bombs actually went off and no one was killed; that there are 17 nutters in a country of 33 million can’t come as that big a surprise; and that they fell under the sway of clerico-fascists is sad, but not actually much worse than their becoming crack dealers.

Canadians have a healthy scepticism about authority. (Australians used to have it but I’m not sure we do anymore.) And when the police are staging media events that involve showing up with a bag of fertiliser (not one of the ones seized) and regaling us with plots of Prime-Ministerial beheadings, the response of an enormous number of people is to wonder what might really be going on and to adopt a wait-and-see posture.

This scepticism is exacerbated by the fact that, two years ago, some two dozen Muslim men of South Asian descent were rounded up in a blaze of publicity, and accused of plotting terror. Accused, but not charged. The claims lovingly reported in all their lurid glory by the media turned out to be just plain wrong. Eventually many of them were shipped off to Pakistan after facing relatively minor visa-violation charges.

That the police and the media (and, it must be said, one of the accused’s lawyers) seem determined to play the same game this time, has set many people’s bullshit detectors buzzing.

The PM’s insouciant response to reports of the plan to behead him (saying that he wasn’t worried, unless his Party’s caucus was involved) summed it all up rather nicely, I thought.

And he is, in his jokey way, right. We do live in a time when small groups of people (tiny, miniscule groups of people) want to kill other people for political reasons. But in the end, smoking kills a lot more people than terror does (god help us, this might even be true in Iraq!) and in that sense, last week’s ban on indoor smoking might well have been the real big news of the week.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.