When the mobs rule

The Greenpeace stunt on Parliament Hill last week went over my head. Literally. I arrived for a conference while they rappelled down West Block before an audience of emergency responders and media. I was actually lost; my event was elsewhere. But I eventually found it, whereas respect for the rule of law is still missing.

I promise not to talk about the substance of that protest. I know people think nothing is more important than climate change; Wednesday's Daily Telegraph quoted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying that the "'future of humanity' is at stake in the Copenhagen climate talks." Under such circumstances, fussing about the rule of law might appear more irrelevant than sinister. But what's the point in passing laws, on climate change or anything else, if the concept of orderly procedure is receding faster than a Swiss glacier?

It seems odd to me that the Copenhagen meeting has witnessed endless disorderly protests by people demanding something be done about the environment. If you were a global warmer, I'd have expected you to think existing processes were working pretty well at this point. Isn't everyone who is anyone at Copenhagen, including Mr. Brown, U.S. President Barack Obama, Prince Charles, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, all demanding immediate massive action or everybody dies? Aren't rafts of expensive experts working day and night to create workable plans to combat global warming regardless of the expense?

If the red greens were marching in support of the program, or making orderly objections on details, or if there was chaos in the streets because the conference had been cancelled, it would make some kind of sense. But rioting in their moment of triumph raises the crucial question: "Why can't these people make their case without breaking the law?"

It is not as though the digital age offers a shortage of ways to spread even an unpopular message. Besides, climate alarmists enjoy the sympathy of virtually every major media outlet and most political parties, with the partial exceptions of U.S. Republicans and Australian Liberals. So why are activists going up the wall, literally and figuratively?

As it happens, the conference I did eventually reach on Monday, sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies, was on the erosion of rights in Canada. And on my panel Peter Stockland, executive director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, addressed precisely this puzzling rise of youthful hordes convinced it is their right to hijack debate by illegal acts. It is a trend whose ominous shadow reaches far beyond any one issue, however vital.

Civil disobedience acquired a saintly aura during the civil rights protests of the early 1960s as people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi broke the law in an orderly and non-violent way, in defence of unfashionable causes and willing to suffer legal penalties. Today's disruptors ape that tradition but do not belong to it.

They break the law in disorderly ways, in defence of fashionable causes, knowing there is no penalty. Where protestors in the 1960s broke the law to challenge the Establishment, today's crop do it to support authority and with its blessing. Even the West Block event was pure theatre. The official response was relaxed, even leisurely, and the police and persons of fire I saw quietly watching the Greenpeace stunt were supporting actors in a familiar, harmless comedy called "Stick it to the man" when everybody knows there is, in fact, no man.

The immediate dangers of such contempt for law are obvious; as Senator Colin Kenny asked, what if they'd been terrorists? And the recent assault on Italy's Silvio Berlusconi underlines that degrading personal assaults on right-wing politicians are not just good, clean left-wing fun. (Man throws shoe at George Bush: hilarious. Man throws shoe at Barack Obama: outrageous, probably racist.) But there's a deeper issue.

Progressive politicians may tolerate this lawlessness for several reasons, including camouflage and intimidation. Next to the mob in the street, elected officials look both prudent and wise, and if you don't let us give the economy to Burundi, your bank and coffee shop windows will get it, and maybe your legislature as well. But under such conditions law itself disintegrates. And then what? If Copenhagen produces a real plan, the transparent fraudulence of law in much of the Third World means it won't be carried out in key developing nations. Do we want that here?

For now, forget your position on climate change. Just ask whether lawlessness is good policy on crucial issues. You can't ignore it, because it can now clamber all over our system of self-government and no one seems surprised, let alone alarmed.

Are we all in over our heads?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson