Last week, the federal government introduced proposed legislation intended to strengthen anti-terror powers of police, the intelligence service and the military.
The legislation would make it illegal to advocate or promote terrorism, would allow courts to remove terrorist propaganda from the internet, and make it easier for authorities to apprehend suspected terrorists before they act.
Civil libertarians waded in immediately. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which is already engaged in litigation against the federal government over allegations of electronic surveillance without warrants, warned that the legislation would give new powers to security agencies that have “shamefully inadequate oversight and are hostile to accountability.”
The proposed legislation comes on the heels of two terror attacks in Canada last year by apparent lone wolves in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. In its press release announcing the measures, the government pronounced the world “a dangerous place” and reminded us that “Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism.” Fair enough.
But Canada is also not immune from the threat of government overreach. There is a very critical line and a democracy needs to struggle to find precisely the right balance around these issues. While a terror attack can come out of the blue and kill, threats to individual liberties tend to emerge more slowly and the harm they do is not as immediately clear.
Israel is probably the most illustrative example of a democratic society trying to balance individual rights with protection of civilians from determined terrorists.
The balance that Israel has struggled to find between the rule of law, protection of civilians and the preservation of core civil liberties has been one of the defining and divisive characteristics of Israeli life for decades.
Balancing the physical safety of civilians with the preservation of the freedoms that define that country invigorates a vibrant public discourse, an ongoing, hand-wringing, conscience-challenging debate that carries on with extraordinary passion in a vibrant political ferment.
Among the problems with applying the Israeli model to Canada’s is that, put simply, Canada is not Israel. Canada has had nothing even remotely comparable to the onslaught of terror attacks Israel has endured. Nothing should diminish the grief and determination we felt collectively after the two incidents last year in this country, but neither should we pretend that our society is under imminent threat of sustained, existential violence from ideological forces. That is simply not the case. Proponents of the legislation might say that we need to make sure that things do not get out of hand by getting ahead of it early. Perhaps. But then a wiser solution still would be to work with and support communities where radicalization is taking place, or threatens to take place, and empower the moderates and reformers to identify and help those at risk of succumbing to ideological extremism. There are other approaches as well.
We should not be lulled into any sense of complacency about the sort of world in which we live. But neither should we succumb to hysteria and assume that the sky is falling. Neither should we pretend that this is all white hat/black hat drama. In Canada and, especially, in the United States, in recent months, we have seen those in authority – police – shoot several innocent civilians. And we have plenty of examples of overreach by intelligence and security agencies that seem to view their constitutional limitations as mere suggestions. This may be a time to strengthen laws that protect our civilian populations from terrorists, but citizens should likewise ask when we will see legislation that ensures our civil liberties are as secure as our physical well-being.
Underpinning all of this discussion, though, is a problem far more immediate to Canadians: political polarization. Would it be too much to ask that, on an issue the federal government rhetorically insists is so extraordinarily urgent as protecting Canadians from terrorism, that they might reach across the aisle and work with opposition members, rising above partisanship to develop responses to genuine national security threats?
Imagine if, instead of a government-initiated security bill pushed through by a majority government, we engaged opposition parties and Canadian citizens to discuss and propose a consensus around these issues that balances the demand between our freedoms and our personal and collective security. That would be an exercise in democracy that would truly define the difference between the enemies who seek to destroy us and the values we cherish.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect in an election year.