The earnest people of Toronto, supported by their politicians and some of the media, are trying desperately to believe that the Tamil protesters are doing nothing wrong. True, they produce chaos on the city's roads, inconveniencing many thousands of drivers. For seven hours last weekend they closed down an east-west expressway, endangering the many children they brought with them, as well as strangers trapped like hostages in their cars and police officers scrambling to avoid disaster. Worse, they generate an air of chaos and menace.
On Wednesday night I stood near them on University Avenue. It was not a parade I was watching, or a demonstration. It was a mob. The protesters displayed what looks to all the world like the flag of the terrorist Tamil Tigers -- though those waving it claim it's been merely a national flag since the Tigers' name was erased in 1990.
But Toronto fears, above all, causing affront. Torontonians will do almost anything to avoid appearing insensitive on any issue related to "multiculturalism." This anxious need has so conquered the civic mind that we can no longer calmly discuss foreign cultures and their local activities. On an occasion like this, Toronto declares an unofficial Stupid Week, hides its brains and grumbles only in private.
In public we act as if we believe the actions of the Tamils (many of them Tamil Canadians) are justified by the gravity of their cause. Tamils are creating local trouble in order to persuade Toronto to persuade Ottawa to persuade Colombo to negotiate a ceasefire with the anti-government forces and end the suffering of civilians caught between two contending armies.
In Sri Lanka's present circumstances that may not be possible, but in any case Canada cannot make it happen -- though provincial and federal politicians have put on their most pious faces and promised to do what they can, which is approximately nothing. Canada might influence the UN but there's no reason to think the UN can dictate Colombo's policies. Nevertheless, the Tamils believe they must "do something," even if they change nothing.
And whatever they do, Toronto must tolerate it. We have come to believe (and the police by their lenience reflect our feelings) that to object to what the Tamils are doing will violate our own principles. Torontonians have a hazy notion that prosecuting illegal demonstrations would constitute a restraint on freedom of speech, though no nation on Earth gives its citizens the right to block its roads for the sake of self-expression. On the Tamil question, Joe Fiorito wrote in his Toronto Star column, "What's the point of a democracy if you cannot take your beef to the streets?" He might as well ask, "What's the point of democracy if you cannot interfere with the lives of your fellow citizens whenever you think you have a good reason?"
Andy Barrie, the host of Metro Morning on local CBC radio, tried to place this issue in the long and honourable tradition of civil disobedience, the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Defending the Tamils against the charge of illegality, Barrie said: "If Martin Luther King had not broken the law by insisting that black people be allowed to sit at all-white lunch counters, if Mahatma Gandhi had not broken the law by boycotting salt in India, India would probably not be independent right now." His guest on the program, a law professor named Trevor Farrow, was not to be outdone. Farrow upped the ante by throwing in anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa and the views of Henry David Thoreau.
I can't remember ever hearing analogies so ineptly employed. Martin Luther King was facing down white Americans who were denying human rights to blacks. South African demonstrators campaigned against South African injustice. Gandhi defied his colonial masters, the British. Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government whose policies he deplored. Invoking these historic figures might make some sense if Gandhi had taken his protests to, say, Stockholm, or if King had marched defiantly down the roads of Melbourne.
But they didn't. They directed their protests against their oppressors, not (as the Tamils do) against innocent citizens on the other side of the world who might have trouble finding Sri Lanka on a map.
We could understand the Tamils for taking badly conceived measures when their friends and relatives are suffering. But the reactions of many Torontonians suggest that in a clumsy attempt at good-heartedness they have joined the lunatic fringe of liberalism.