Event Recap: Are We on a Highway to the Danger Zone?

July 08, 2015

As Dr. Ramesh Thakur mounted the steps to the speaker’s stand at SFU Harbour Centre in the early evening of June 24th, he turned to look out of the wide windows framing the stage and remarked that he could not think of “a less appropriate setting for a talk on danger zones.” The audience laughed in agreement. Beyond, the sprawling green mountains and the tall red cranes of Vancouver’s bustling port painted an image of security and serenity.

Yet, our own government is painting a different image. 

With the passing of Bill C-51, which gives Canadian police and security forces sweeping powers to protect us from the threat of terrorism, our government is telling us that we are already living in a danger zone. One in which our busy port is a target for jihadi terrorists, and our security and our serenity are under constant threat.

What better place, then, to hold Danger Zones: The Changing Nature of Global Conflict, a dialogue between panelists Dr. Thakur, an International Peace and Security Thought Leader, Benoît Gomis, a Chatham House Fellow and International Security Analyst and Consultant, Dr. Brian Job, a professor of Political Science at UBC, and Dr. Nicole Jackson, an Associate Professor of International Studies at SFU?

Shifting Tectonic Plates

From nuclear warfare, to drones, to ISIS, and Ukraine, Dr. Thakur and the panel of speakers tackled a multitude of issues over the course of the dialogue.

The panelists agreed that what Dr. Thakur called the “tectonic plates” of the post-1945 liberal world order are shifting. That the way in which we approach global conflict must adapt, because the players have changed and the battlefields have moved. Now, non-state actors, like ISIS and Boko Haram, are challenging the long-standing narrative of the state as both the subject and the object of war by cutting swathes of destruction through Iraq and Syria and Nigeria. Wars are waged in Parisian magazine offices and on Tunisian beaches. Civilians are targets rather than collateral damage.

How is the world responding to these shifts?

Predator drones over Pakistan and Yemen, proxy wars in the Middle East, and powerful legislation, like Bill C-51.

The simplicity of previous state-as-aggressor wars is being replaced by what Dr. Thakur called “a new world disorder,” with “the periphery closing in on the center,” and the center scrambling to maintain its hold.

With international laws and institutions like the United Nations falling short in this scramble and, as Dr. Nicole Jackson put it, the West having “no real and coherent answers” to these issues, fears run rampant. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the media. Turn on Fox News, and Judge Jeanine Pirro is telling you that “you need to be afraid, because [ISIS is] coming for you.” Open the New York Times, and Roger Cohen is telling you about dinner parties spent discussing ways in which terrorists could spread Ebola on crowded subway trains.

It seems that the world is approaching “a series of tipping points,” and perhaps, as Dr. Brian Job argued, we have already passed some.

Is there room for hope?

Throughout the dialogue, the panelists repeatedly referenced Steve Pinker’s and Andrew Mack’s assertions that we are in “an increasingly peaceful period in history.” And, as Benoît Gomis argued, while terrorist activity has increased in recent years, homicide kills more people than terrorism worldwide. According to this view, the media and its enraptured audience have fallen victim to what Gomis called “threat inflation,” rather than focusing on hard facts.

Though, as Gomis went on to say, we shouldn’t be complacent.

So, what can be done?

Dr. Nicole Jackson called for increased political empathy, trust building, and discussions with non-state actors aimed at developing some form of understanding between the new players and the old order. Similarly, Dr. Thakur wondered whether the Western world should raise its tolerance levels for fear of the alternative. Unfortunately, the event wrapped up before the panelists and the audience could fully explore the feasibility of these suggestions.

Faced with such a large and pressing topic, this dialogue was always going to end with some unanswered questions. But, I still feel uneasy. Are we on a highway to the danger zone? Or are we already there?

As the panelists shook hands and walked off of the stage, I looked past them. Toward those sprawling green mountains and those tall red cranes. Toward the security and the serenity at stake.

Jillian Read holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from UBC.