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The Timing of the Anti-Terrorism Bill Is a Play on Our Emotions

04/23/2013 08:44 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Safety is on everyone's mind now. The Boston Marathon attacks have reminded us of terrorism's incredible randomness and cruelty, of the helplessness and fear that follow from not knowing what may come next. Monday's arrest by the RCMP of two individuals who were allegedly planning out a terrorist attack on a VIA Rail train will only heighten our level of anxiety as the scare hits closer to home.

It is in this context that our government is currently debating the Combating Terrorism Act. The Bill reintroduces two provisions of the November 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act that expired in 2007, and were never used while they were in force.

The first provision reintroduced permits investigative hearings, where a judge can compel an individual to testify in secret when there is reason to believe a terrorist act will be committed; refusing to answer can get one locked up for up to 12 months. The second provision reintroduced permits an individual to be arrested and detained without charge for up to three days. That person can then be released into recognizance under obligation to keep conditions for 12 months. If the individual refuses, the judge may order the person imprisoned for up to 12 months.

Both provisions can be employed against people suspected of having information about a terrorist offence; they don't even need to be the alleged terrorists themselves.

These are serious provisions that pose serious questions about what lengths a society should go to in order to keep itself safe. Should someone be compelled to testify before a judge, in investigative hearings, where evidence is secret, unknown to even the individual compelled to testify? In such a context the judge ceases to be a neutral arbiter and becomes an active agent of the investigation, almost an extension of law enforcement, calling into question the independence of our judiciary.

Notwithstanding the violations of liberty and due process, some might say that three days of preventative arrest is a small price to pay for our safety and security. We cannot ignore, however, how the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Boston highlighted for us the perils of being falsely accused of terrorism. Things happen quickly. Anyone's face can be caught by a camera and labelled a terrorist. Lots of people carry bags while wearing baseball hats.

These provisions have the potential to bring us down a very slippery slope, redefining how we view fundamental rights and liberty.

Such an important debate cannot happen in the wake of a terrorist attack, when emotions are ripe for manipulation. The Globe and Mailnoted that the surprising timing of this debate "smacks of political opportunism"; strike while the iron is hot.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says that Boston proves we need stronger anti-terrorism laws. But writing in the National Post, Matt Gurney points out that "indeed, if anything, Boston shows a successful law enforcement response to an act of terror without need of new laws." Here in Canada, one day after Minister Toews went on television the RCMP arrested two individuals accused of planning to conduct a terrorist act, without the aid of these provisions; our laws worked. When the Toronto 18 were arrested, they were arrested without the aid of these tools. Again, our laws worked.

And in the five years when the provisions were available to law enforcement, they went unused. They were nothing but dust-gathering credentials to prove that our government was "tough on terror."

Reintroducing these provisions seems nothing more than an attempt by the Conservative government to further prove its 'tough on terror' credentials; the original provisions having been introduced by the Liberals. Starting the bill's final reading a week after the terrorism in Boston seems a convenient scapegoat from having to actually justify the content of the provisions and their need. As pointed out by numerous rights organizations across the country, law enforcement agencies have never been prevented from conducting surveillance and gathering evidence to further investigations, bring charges, and lock terrorists up.

Maybe our laws aren't effective enough to protect us from the threat of terrorism. Perhaps some liberties should take a back seat at times, even though we now know that too easily any one of us could be the one to lose that liberty. But when our laws appear to be working, and when our terrorists languish in prisons -- results of brave and successful law enforcement operations -- attempting to play on our fears by using emotion over reason does not do justice to the seriousness this discussion this requires.

Terrorism, and keeping us all safe, is too important a subject to be driven by such emotive impulses.

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