As I made my way to work through the deserted streets of Toronto, I came across a strange scene. An old woman was crossing King Street, headed north on Yonge. A police Forensic Services van (read: the "By Definition, We Only Show Up Long After the Trouble is Over" Van) was waiting at the light, and the driver had his window open. As the women passed, she said something like: "God bless you boys. I'm praying for you. Good luck out there."
This struck me as the kind of thing you say to a soldier going into combat, and the kind of thing said by a very frightened person. So why was this women so scared?
Presumably, she has subscribed to the widely held belief that this weekend's G20 summit will somehow unleash biblical levels of destruction across the GTA. You know, fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!* This belief is, of course, somewhat irrational (except, apparently, the bit about earthquakes).
Here's what will happen this weekend: roads will be closed. There will a lot of people angry about something, and telling us all about it. There will be some property crime and/or civil unrest. The downtown will be deserted. Essentially, this is an average summer weekend in Toronto turned up by about 15 per cent. Even if things do go seriously pear-shaped, the damage will be cleaned up, we'll all have a good think about what happened, and things will go almost immediately back to normal. We even have some helpful historical examples to guide our prognostication, all of which speak to the negligible effects of having the G20 come to your town:
- Washington, DC, USA (2008): Still Standing
- London, England (2009): Still Standing
- Pittsburgh, USA (2009): Still standing, also still has awesome football team
So there you go. I will 100 per cent guarantee that Toronto will still be here post-conference. Nevertheless, people seem very worried. Why is that exactly? These facts are all easy to perceive, so something must be clouding our reason.
I blame the media.
Scoring points off of the clowning band of hucksters we rely on for information is pretty damn easy, true. But I think the media really does deserve to be slapped around for this one. On a wide variety of issues - from terrorism to Swine Flu - our beloved fourth estate provides coverage that's less the "Here are some facts for you to consider" variety and more the "DEAR GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE EVERYBODY PANIC" type that really makes our public discourse pop with nonsense. There's a well-traveled theory that media 'primes' the public, or frame what we think is important, and how we think about those important things. The media has uniformly portrayed G20 (and WTO, and IMF, and World Bank, and all other such events) as violent clashes between thuggish police and dangerous extremists. This primes everyone: police assume it's their job to drop the hammer. Protesters assume it's their job to be violent. And we assume we should all be very scared and get the hell out of dodge. The media has presented us with a picture of what this event is going to look like, and we're all keen to play our assigned parts.
There are a lot of legitimate issues around the conference. Why does it cost so much? Where do we draw the line between civil liberties and public safety? Why are these people protesting? Why don't the G20 leaders care? But we can't have a serious debate about any of these things if we're frightened.
So, old lady crossing the street, don't be scared. Everything is going to fine. This weekend will come and go, maybe with a few more headlines than normal. But we'll all still be here on Monday.
*Ghostbusters is pretty much the best movie ever.