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Let's Reflect on the Attacks in Canada, But Hold Off on Legislation

11/03/2014 12:43 EST | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 EST
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Prime minister Stephen Harper speaks to his caucus on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday May 21, 2013. (AP PHOTO/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

The horrific and public murders of two Canadian servicemen -- Nathan Frank Cirillo and Patrice Vincent -- days apart will surely become political fodder for debates about Canada's international and domestic policies and practices concerning terrorism. While these tragedies should indeed stimulate conversation and reflection, they should not be used to stifle debate and facilitate the speedy passing of any counter-terrorism legislation without due scrutiny or a critical eye -- a phenomenon far to frequent in post-9/11 Canada.

After 9/11, Parliament passed the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act granting intrusive and far-reaching powers to government agencies that clashed with our Bill of Rights. In 2007, Parliament voted against renewing some of the Act's provisions, but that changed after the Boston Marathon Bombing last year which acted as a catalyst for fast-tracking the Combating Terrorism Act.

On October 22, the day Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire in the capital, new counter-terrorism legislation was to be tabled. Bill C-44 is surely in response to recent threats made by ISIL. Given Canada's reactionary record there is a serious risk that this legislation will also be fast-tracked and that concerns and criticisms will be prematurely silenced.

We should be weary of the concept of terrorism - and an increasing number of voices are raising this point -- which brings with it assumptions of immorality, irrationality and inhumanity. And when we begin to apply this label to our compatriots, as heinous as their acts may be, we should pause. The counter-terrorism experience in the United States provides a good reason as to why.

Fears about homegrown terrorism can lead to practices of profiling, burdening entire communities with the brunt of the responsibility for such actions. The NYPD's extensive network of informants operating within the city's mosques is one example. In light of CNN's highlighting that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was a Muslim convert, one must address the inflated elephant in the room: studies on homegrown terrorism repeatedly show one's religion (convert or otherwise), as an independent variable, explains nothing in regard to whether or not one is prone to violence.

Other approaches to counter-terrorism that (ostensibly) eschew profiling are also problematic. Theories of radicalization abound and within these an individual's path to violence is framed as the confluence of an almost innumerable number of factors: psychological, personal, economic, social or political. Certainly, we must try to understand how such acts of violence occur, but we must tread carefully. Presenting this process toward violence as one of "radicalization," that is, as fundamentally tied first and foremost to "terrorism" generates images of the "lone wolf," of a threat indistinguishable from the populace, lurking amongst us, lying in wait.

Indeed, neither recent attacker fit the description of the caricaturized images of terrorists that circulate through popular and official discourses, but is the "lone wolf" any more appropriate when thinking about the violence that has occurred? This is a difficult line on which to balance but it is a necessary task as it is these narratives that have guided counter-terrorism measures such as mass surveillance and the use of informants.

The problem with such measures unchecked is that they can, as in the U.S. experience, end up preying on society's most vulnerable. Take for example the "Newburgh Four," a group of poor African-American men, lured into a plot by a government agent. The agent provocateur "fished" at an inner-city mosque for months posing as a wealthy terrorist and promising the men an escape from poverty. Despite the judge's acknowledgement of the "unterrorism" nature of the case, she still applied a terrorism-enhancement, sentencing the men to 25 years in prison.

The New America Foundation's research on homegrown extremism in America shows that the use of these tactics is prevalent in a variety of contexts, jihadist and non-jihadist -- informants are planted in the environmentalist movement, for instance. This data also shows that the combined death toll from both non-jihadist and jihadist attacks, post-9/11 to the present, pales in comparison to that of gun violence in the U.S. in the the same time period.

This is not meant to minimize the deaths of the two soldiers. The intention is quite the opposite. It is to prevent their deaths from being used as kindling for a reactionary fire that has burned far too strongly in Canadian politics in the last 13 years. Canadians must consider the consequences of such measures, not only for their material effects on actual lives, but on what it means to allow fears of suspicion to run through our cities and neighbourhoods for our sense of who we are. Ultimately, the point here is not to reassert our difference from American culture and politics but to learn from the perils of the U.S. approach to counter-terrorism.

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