Waiting for History to unfold

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By Siri Agrell

Ryerson history professor Arne Kislenko brings context to conflict

“Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it.” This popular saying hangs over last week’s terrorist attacks on the U.S. as people struggle to put meaning to the horror unfolding before them. What lessons of history have been ignored that we have once again come to the brink of international war?

Ryerson history professor Arne Kislenko, a former intelligence officer for Citizen and Immigration Canada, believes that in order to understand the current state of international tension, you need to understand the history and politics of the nations involved. Without this understanding, he says the confusion sparked by this suffering and loss would be too much to bear. “History helps us reconcile the personal horror that we’re all feeling,” he says. “It doesn’t bring comfort, but it brings perspective. Over the past week, Kislenko has tried to give some relevant historical understanding to students who are, for the first time in their lives, faced with the possibility of full-scale international war. He is worried that some of them even support the prospect.

“People want a quick fix,” says Kislenko. “They want names and they want action. They think things will go back to normal after that, but at this point normalcy – whatever that is – will not return.” While he’s certain the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon will permanently change North America, he predicts the impact will be far less frightening, than most people believe.

“It’s understandable that people draw the parallel with Pearl Harbor and the beginning of American involvement in World War II,” Kislenko says. “But beyond the psychological connection of immense fear, there is absolutely no relation between the events. That was a nation attacking and we knew the return address.” Because the terrorists are not affiliated with a single nation, Kislenko sees the prospect of war – especially nuclear war – as unlikely.

He says that the impact of terrorism will be felt mostly in the day-to-day operations of North American government, from flight security to intelligence and immigration. “The major consequence in Canada is going to be in the re-examination of our immigration policies,” he says. “We pride ourselves on being open and welcoming, but security and immigration go hand in hand – people are deluding themselves if they think there’s no relationship.” The perception that Canada is a haven for many subversive groups is not unfounded, says Kislenko. He believes weaknesses in immigration policy have allowed the country to be used as a launching point for many terrorist actions.

But he admits that overhauling immigration policies will affect many of the civil liberties that are essential to Canada’s multicultural image. Beyond increased border restrictions, Kislenko is unsure of the extent Canada will commit to supporting U.S. military retaliation. “No matter what [Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien is saying right now, our nation may not be capable, or willing, to honour full-scale support,” he says. “And the question of support is rhetorical because no one understands the dimensions of what has happened here. No one knows the scope.”

A terrorist attack has never happened on Canadian soil, something Kislenko credits to Canada’s distinct international image. Like many Canadians, he believes the country is viewed from abroad in a very different light than our southern neighbour. “I don’t think Canada would have been a target of this kind of attack,” he says. As to how the U.S. will address the new war on terrorism, Kislenko is tentative to project major changes in international relations. “This will usher in a period of great frustration and anxiety, but there won’t be any immediate reassessment of their foreign policy.” He says that despite all America’s enormous wealth and power, it has historically acted as an insular nation, taking comfort in its geographic isolation from the rest of the world. “This is the first time North America has been violated on a personal level. It’s unprecedented and so it’s hard to say how they’ll react.”

His major worry is that North America’s narrow understanding of the religion of Islam, and a simplistic notion of who’s behind the attacks, will increase support for retaliation. “Most people think this is an act of faith,” Kislenko says. “But when you look at things closely, you realize that this is an act of extremists and should be treated as such. But that doesn’t do away with the terror.” He urges students to reject the temptation to panic, jump to conclusions or assign blame. “There is a natural reaction to say ‘This is it, this is World War III,’ but we have to wait until history unfolds.”

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