Sunday, January 30, 2005

What Price Democracy and Freedom?

Today, sixty percent of voters in Iraq turned out to vote in the first democratic elections in that country since the military coup of July 14th, 1958. Millions went to the polls despite terrorist threats, intimidation and murder. On June 28, 2004, sixty percent of Canadians voted in our last federal election, while enjoying the comforts and safety of one of the most prosperous nations on earth. Quick now, which is the more impressive display of citizenship?

Sophocles said, “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been”. Whatever “evening” brings in Iraq, today has been a great day for democracy and freedom. All Iraqis who voted deserve medals in the war on terrorism. Those who chose not to vote in areas under the control of terrorist tactics of mass murder can be excused for staying home.

In the sixteen months leading up to the last Canadian election, I was at over 25,000 doors and met a wide variety of people. It was a very broad poll of attitudes, some of which made me proud to be Canadian; and some of which made me mad and sad, at the same time. I met immigrants who would be able to participate in their own political future for the first time in their lives. They were thrilled and they couldn’t wait. I met way too many Canadians who take life for granted and couldn’t be bothered to take half an hour out of their “busy” schedules to do their duty. They made me sick.

What is the cost of democracy and freedom? Since we became a nation in 1867, well over two million Canadians have served in uniform overseas. Over 115,000 of those Canadians have died in foreign lands. Of the 1,354 Victoria Crosses awarded since 1854, 100 have been pinned to Canadian breasts, many of them posthumously. Those Canadians clearly understood the price of democracy and freedom.

While many enjoy pillorying the United States, they might also remember that some 630,000 Americans have died in the same cause since 1916, including 1,400 more recently in Iraq. During the Vietnam War era, over 30,000 Americans duty dodgers moved to Canada. During the same time, as many as 30,000 Canadians joined the U.S. armed forces; 12,000 served in Vietnam; and 80 were killed. Did you know that 40 Canadians have won the United States Congressional Medal of Honour, their equivalent of the Victoria Cross?

Love or hate America, the demonstration of democracy in Iraq today would not have happened without them. Will the “evening” of historical hindsight judge this to have been a “splendid” day for Iraq? No reasonable person could possibly hope otherwise.

The new U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, refused to be pinned down by Wolf Blitzer on CNN today, on what is an acceptable cost of democracy and freedom in Iraq. Again, history will pass judgment on America’s efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere. Despite all the obvious challenges, there are many hopeful signs in Iraq and in the Palestinian-Israeli situation. If Iraqis can overcome the terrorism within their borders, there is hope. If the Sunnis can be convinced to become part of the process in Iraq, there is hope. If the new Palestinian leadership can permanently revoke the terrorism that characterized Yasser Arafat and his leadership, there is hope. If Ariel Sharon can keep his own hard-liners in check, there is hope. If Syria and Iran and Saudi Arabia and others can start acting responsibly and in the interests of their own people, there is hope.

There are a lot of “ifs” out there and a lot of “but(t)s”, waiting to scuttle the process. Millions of Iraqis got off their butts today, setting an example for the Canadians who have been sitting on theirs, while others do the heavy lifting, militarily and politically.

Will Paul Martin be listening when he doles out resources for Canada’s military in the next budget? Will Canadian voters do their duty in the next federal election? I won’t give you my pessimistic predictions. I’ll just say that, if the answers are “no”, then Canada’s “evening” will continue to be overcast and rainy.

To quote Winston Churchill, one can only hope that this is “the end of the beginning” for democracy and freedom in the broader Middle East and the rest of the world.

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