Ottawa Attacks: What We Must Do—and Not Do—in Response

Locked in today at the University of Ottawa, looking down on the largely deserted canal bike path, several hundred metres from the cenotaph where this morning’s horrifying events began, I was stunned. I was also shaking, and afraid—but not out of any sense of personal peril. I felt perfectly safe, even knowing innocent people were shot and killed or wounded close by. I was receiving regular security updates on my computer by the university, and the police were visibly swarming about below on the streets.

My fear, rather, was of what comes next. And my greatest fear was that the relatively tolerant and relaxed Canada that I call home, will come to resemble instead the paranoid, fear-obsessed and divided societies that terrorism, among other factors, has produced in parts of Europe and the Middle East.

The immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack is the worst possible moment to hold an emergency debate on tightening security at the expense of freedom.

Unlike many who will appear on our television screens in the next days and weeks, I claim no expertise on terrorism. I lived in London in the 1980s and early 90s, when IRA bomb alerts were routine and, occasionally, all too real. Further, like many Canadians, I’ve travelled in a dozen other countries where the threat of terror attacks was all too real. I have also researched and publicized the human rights abuses committed by terrorist groups in many countries, and the excessive counter-terrorism measures governments take in response, where these too violate fundamental rights.

On that basis, some things I believe we must not do:

First, we mustn’t succumb to the fear the attackers intend to sow. To be sure, the events are terrifying. But we mustn’t let that terror seep into our daily lives. The risk to most of us is minimal. In this regard, though it is perhaps understandable, it is still regrettable that the Prime Minister cancelled his planned event with Malala Yousafzai (the Nobel Prize winner) at a Toronto high school today. Additional security for the event ought to have allayed any perceived additional threat to the Prime Minister, or Malala. Or alternatively, a private meeting with her might still have been televised. Malala herself stands for the principle of meeting the threat of terror with courage and quiet conviction. Only the terrorists win if we retreat into an illusory bunker. I very much hope that next weekend, like two weeks ago, I see the Prime Minister walking through leafy Rockcliffe Park, (a couple of security men discretely in tow).

Second, we mustn’t generalize in our descriptions of the communities from which the attacker(s) originated. The risk here is so great that it is incumbent on our political leadership to over-compensate and make absolutely clear, publicly and quickly, that no race, ethnicity or religion is to blame; the political leadership of all parties must criticize those who try to apportion blame in this way.

Third, from the political right, the attacks should not be used to justify our involvement in the war in Iraq against the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). Rightly or wrongly, we entered that conflict because of the threat the IS poses in the region and to the minority religious and ethnic communities it attacks. It defies reason to suggest that we can defeat a threat in Ottawa by striking a target in Mosul. By what logic would killing IS fighters on the battlefields of Iraq make homegrown terrorists, sympathetic to IS and already present in Canada, less angry and less likely to seek revenge? The ideology we confront is inspired by martyrdom.

At the same time, from the political left the attacks mustn’t be used to make facile arguments suggesting we invited such attacks by joining the US-led coalition against IS. There are any number of Canadian foreign policy decisions, including the Liberal Government decision to fight with NATO in Afghanistan, that might give rise to grievances that determined Islamists who are already in Canada, might use to justify violence. Indeed, as the trials of the ‘Toronto 18’ and other cases show, the risk was already present. Further, if the goal is to encourage the government to re-think its military operations in Iraq, suggesting that presence precipitated the terrorist attack in Ottawa will hardly help; for no government hoping to maintain its credibility could appear to back away so quickly from a fight barely begun.

Fifth, we must not rush to propose new anti-terrorism laws, and new and expanded powers for our security agencies. It may be that, once the police work is done, it emerges that some legal constraint prevented greater scrutiny of the attackers beforehand. Given the significant post 9/11 powers already granted to police, border and intelligence agencies in Canada, I very much doubt that is the case. But I am sure that the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack is the worst possible moment to hold an emergency debate on tightening security at the expense of freedom.

Finally, the political class must avoid the overwhelming temptation to play politics with the attack. It will be worrying if the Conservative Government uses these events to mock or belittle the opposition parties’ reluctance to endorse military action abroad. At the same time, were the opposition to use the attacks, (as the Republicans in the US have done with the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi), to portray the Harper Government as clumsy in its anti-terrorism efforts, we would quickly descend to even greater distrust and dissension in our national politics.

But there are also things we must do: first, urgently step up the government’s engagement and dialogue with the Islamic community. The key questions: how to empower the overwhelming majority who reject violence, and marginalize the small minority who might justify it, and identify the very few who might resort to it? And the best answers to those questions will come from within the community.

And then, not today, and not tomorrow, but soon, step back and ask ourselves—how long will the “long war” against terror last? The threat of organized Islamist political violence is real, though its impact is felt much more abroad than here in Canada. Today’s events in Ottawa are neither the beginning nor the end of anything. They are one, terrible, incident in a long series of confrontations between a politicized Islam and western states. To some of us, this began on 9/11; for some of them, its origins are much further back. We cannot disarm ourselves in the face of these threats. But neither has a decade of war, in ever more countries, and a massive increase in domestic security impacting all of our freedoms, and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, brought us greater security. There must be another way.

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