Pro-Hamas demonstrations in Montreal
Reasonable accommodation? How about accommodating reason!
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The spate of pro-Hamas demonstrations in Montreal over the past weeks raises questions that should bother us as a community regardless of where one stands on the conflict in the Middle East. My headline to this article is not meant to suggest that there ever be any legislative restriction on what people can say or write. Short of incitement to violence, freedom of expression should be absolute.
But there is another form of incitement that is as dangerous to the spirit as violence is to the body. That is the incitement to psychological terror. The demonstrations we have seen in the past weeks in support of Hamas have two public faces. The first is the veneer of the opening of each manifestation. Well printed signs are raised praising peace, criticizing Israel, and manifesting compassion for the dead and wounded. Only the Gazan dead and wounded of course. They are followed by speeches condemning Israel, America and general western society’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of regimes that are violent theocratic tyrannies.
As vile and hypocritical as these words and images are they deal, for the most part, with the parameters of secular, political discourse. But then the marching begins and the veneer falls. Each demonstration degenerates into hysterical screaming, flag burning, and Jihadist chanting. The messages and metaphors are not political but religious. Not anti-Israeli, but openly anti-Semitic. Not encouraging of freedom, but lionizing submission to Islamist leaders and groups named as terrorists by all western governments.
“Palestine is ours! Jews are our dogs!” “God loves the Jihadi!” “We will give our blood and soul for Al-Aqsa!” “Nasrallah, Hezbollah!” Lest anyone think I’m dramatizing , these have all been recorded. Some are available on YouTube.
As objectionable as all the above may be, it should still never be subject to restraint. But what is troubling is that there seems to be no restraint imposed by municipal authorities to protect those of us who do not want to be accosted by the slogans of psychological terror or have our lives disrupted by mobs taking over our public thoroughfares. learned that these demonstrators have no permits for their actions and the position of the authorities is that none are required. That should be troubling to us all strictly on the basis of public security.
In the past two demonstrations, the pro-Israeli group was asked to move away from the pro-Hamas group for their own protection. As has been recorded in many articles, death chants were screeched by the Hamas demonstrators. I witnessed the last demonstration and asked a police officer why they were not asking the Hamas group to move as well in order to create more distance between the two. The officer replied that they could only handle one group at a time and they would turn their attention to the other protestors right away. After some time had passed, not only were the pro-Hamas group not asked to move off of Peel St. and into the park at Place du Canada, the police stood by while the protestors grew in number and took over the road completely. I then approached several officers and asked why permits were granted so frequently for the same demonstrators. To my surprise I was told that no permits were required because demonstrations were protected under the freedom of expression provisions of the Charter of Rights. I beg to differ.
The Charter indeed protects expression and no municipal authority should refuse a permit simply because of controversial views. But permits aren’t there to stop expression, they are there to ensure public order. A municipal administration has the responsibility to ensure peaceable movement of people and traffic. The freedom of the city. The Charter gives no group the right to ensare a community at its whim.. Permits also have an informative function. If demonstrators have a right to shout messages of hate, citizens have an equal right to protect themselves from hearing them if they so choose. Changing the channel so to speak. Permits inform the public where demonstrations will be and citizens can then prepare their day around that information. Many people, particularly the elderly, have been truly traumatized by the psychological terror incited by the Hamas screeds in the streets. They should have the information at hand to avoid them. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, permits would inform the public as to who is directing a particular demonstration. Liberty demands responsibility as Bernard Shaw wrote, and anyone invoking the right to the streets as a pulpit should have the responsibility to identify themselves. You can’t have rights without responsibilities.
To their credit, several of Montreal’s leading public figures agreed to give these arguments study and consideration. Executive Committee Chairman Claude Dauphin and Deputy Police Director Joseph DiFeo will be looking at possible responses with some of their senior colleagues. The bottom line is that we have a permit process. Almost all groups and cultural communities have to have them for their manifestations. As one city official told me, If permits are waved for Hamas sympathizers, then why have them at all? The precedent is a dangerous one. Guarding the line between expression and incitement is a difficult task. It requires community spirit, co-operation and intellectual rigour. It does not require restrictions on speech. To the contrary, it requires expansion of information. The permit process is a protection of your right to shout and your neighbour’s right to be let alone. Maybe somewhere in there we’ll get to a common ground of civil discourse. Reasonable accommodation has gone far enough. It’s time to accommodate reason.