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Do You Feel Safer Post-9/11? $92 Billion Safer?

Now the debate has inevitably begun as to what Canadians have to show for such a massive public investment in something as abstract as 'security.'

Earlier this week, the non-partisan Rideau Institute released a report on Canada's defence spending since 9/11 entitled The Cost of 9/11 and the Creation of a National Security Establishment. It was written by economist David Macdonald, and it calculated that $92 billion ($69 billion adjusted for inflation) has been spent on security in various forms in Canada since Sept. 11, 2001. That's an estimated $9.2 billion per year to supposedly make Canadians feel safer in the wake of the worst foreign terrorist attack to occur on North American soil.

But do Canadians feel safer in the decade after 9/11? According to a recent online poll of over 500 respondents conducted by the CBC, over 74 per cent claimed that no, in fact, they do not feel safer after 9/11. Is there is any achievable outcome in the global war on extremism and terror that could satisfy any of the 74 per cent who feel unsafe in Canada? And if $92 billion was spent to make Canadians feel safer and a random sampling does not indicate that they do, what went wrong?

The main findings of the report indicate that:

- In this fiscal year 2011-12, Canada will spend $34 billion on its national security, which is an additional $17 billion ($13 billion inflation-adjusted) more than the amount it would have spent had budgets remained in line with pre-9/11 levels. This is an increase of 105% (60% inflation-adjusted).

- Military expenditures have nearly doubled (+90%) since 9/11 (48% inflation-adjusted), and the Department of National Defence is by far the largest consumer of national security expenditures.

- Security and Public Safety programs have nearly tripled in spending, from $3 billion to almost $9 billion annually ($3.9 billion to $8.7 billion inflation-adjusted), or 186% since 9/11 (123% inflation-adjusted).

Macdonald argues that "these increases in resources for the defence, international, security and justice areas of the federal government has [fostered] the creation of a 'national security establishment.'" But much has changed in the decade since 9/11, Macdonald writes, and while circumstances are far different now (President Bush is out of office; al Qaeda has been significantly diminished; Afghans and Canadians grow weary of the war; and bin Laden is dead), it appears as if spending has not been reduced to reflect the world of 2011.

Canada appears to be fighting the 2002 version of the global war on terror well past its best before date.

And now the debate has inevitably begun as to what Canadians have to show for such a massive public investment in something as abstract as 'security.' And looking to the future, we must begin to discuss whether the global economic instability that has characterized the past three years can justify the continuation of such spending. Because as provinces and municipalities right across the country contemplate service cuts to fight deficits, it should be asked what this investment is worth to the average Canadian. Is security spending worth more to the average Canadian than investments in health care? What about infrastructure like public transit? How about spending on air quality, alternative energy, or the environment more broadly?

These areas offer more tangible and everyday benefits for Canadians than any long-term investment in CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) would, to take one example.

Yet many feel as though the investment was worthwhile. Canada has not suffered an attack in the same way that New York or London has. But can this be directly attributable to post-9/11 defence spending? Not likely, but many will no doubt see it that way. (It's the same as Homer Simpson thinking that after a bear was seen wandering around Springfield that his anti-bear signage was keeping the bear from coming back.)

The common justification for this type of defence spending seems to go like this: Canadians didn't want to invest such large amounts of money in keeping ourselves safe -- but as the fight has come to North America, we must protect ourselves. And as Chuck Strahl, a former Conservative cabinet minister argued on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, we may begrudge every dollar we spend on security, but are grateful for the investment when something goes wrong.

Defence spending, when seen in this light, is little more than an insurance policy a nation takes out against future catastrophe.

Not all of the security spending identified in the Rideau Institute report was directly related to the terrorist attacks on September, 2001. Yet separate funding for Foreign Affairs, the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and the Canada Border Services Agency among others has pooled and led to an area of spending known broadly as the 'national security establishment.'

This vaguely Orwellian term should be troubling to Canadians, not only for the comparison it strikes in mind with the term 'homeland security' in the United States, but for the way in which security spending has become so normalized and banal. We are not protecting ourselves from the possibility of being murdered by religious extremists (of any denomination) so much as we are investing in our 'national security establishment.' Sounds harmless enough.

The astronomical spending that Macdonald outlines continues to this day, and that should be the main take away from the report. Not that spending on all Security and Public Safety Programs has jumped 186 per cent in the decade since 9/11, but that Stephen Harper's Conservatives continue this reckless level of defence spending to fight a largely abstract concept and a diminished 'enemy.'

That this upward trend is not a historical anomaly and footnote yet is what keeps me feeling unsafe.

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