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How Should We Respond to Terrorism?

After the Paris Attacks is a collection of research that moves away from the US to look at Canadian and European debates over terrorism.

How should we respond to terrorism?

That’s the topic of a new collection reflecting on the implications and responses of the world to the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this year, and to terrorism in the 21st century more broadly. This collection emerges from a conference held at University of Toronto earlier this year, which brought together journalists, politicians, and academic scholars from a broad range of disciplines to reflect on how the world responds – and how it ought to respond – to Islamist-inspired terrorism.

The conference came at a tense political moment, with Canada’s infamous Bill C-51 looming in the legislature. The sweeping ‘anti-terrorism’ bill included a broad swath of securitization measures which threatened to undermine civil liberties and endow Canadian security agencies (such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, CSIS, and the even more secretive Communications Security Establishment, CSE) with unprecedented powers. That legislation has since passed into law -- although it remains a politically charged topic in the country’s impending federal election, with at least one major party committed to its repeal if elected. But the fraught issue of reconciling terrorism, racism, security, liberty, and politics remains as elusive as ever.

Political scientist Randall Hansen opens the collection arguing that amid confusing and clashing perspectives on what is even being debated in the messy public conversation over security, culture and Islamophobia, “clarity is found in the numbers”. It's a call to focus on the data, not the emotions. He tags three of the key issues in this discussion being a rise in Islamophobia since 9/11 (as demonstrated by survey data on public attitudes); a rise in anti-Semitism across Europe during the same period, and “an attack by an unholy alliance of religious extremists and progressive thinkers on the principles of free speech.”

Ultimately, argues Hansen, debates about cultural sensitivity, religious dress and all the attendant issues are beside the point; what matters “is not culture but cash… The key point here is work: in the absence of work, there is no hope of professional advancement and little hope of personal dignity and autonomy.” In the face of the complex causes of structural underemployment for ethnic minority immigrants in Europe and elsewhere, governments must dedicate themselves to improving training, education and employment outcomes for immigrant minorities.

A similar point is made by sociologist Jeffrey G. Reitz, who argues against the stereotype that Muslim immigrants to Canada don’t ‘integrate’ well. “The empirical evidence says one thing; the general public says another, and the public discourse is all about religion,” he laments. In actual fact, he says, research indicates that Muslims integrate and assimilate just as much as any other minority group (when measured along such lines as assimilation of gender equity values, for instance). “(A) public discourse of exclusion does not necessarily lead to exclusion,” he writes, suggesting that where exclusion occurs it tends to be a product of discrimination stemming from racialized or ethnic background, and has little to do with religion.

Mohammad Fadel discusses the double standard inherent in the treatment of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik and the terrorist brothers who stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices. Even though Breivik’s defence team openly argued he was pursuing “’a radical political project’ to defend a Christian Europe from the threat of multiculturalism, Islam, and communism,” there was no sense of general crisis around his actions comparable to the international response to the Charlie Hebdo murders.

This is indicative of a pattern, writes Fadel: “This hyper-vigilance targeting Muslim communities in Western democracies is contrasted with the relative nonchalance that governments of liberal democracies have demonstrated towards the problem of right-wing white supremacist groups, even though intelligence data indicate that white supremacists in Canada, for example, have accounted for more terrorist attacks than Muslims.” Rather than intensify state responses to white supremacists, Fadel says, the state ought to apply the same tactics to Islamist-inspired terrorism, and treat it as individual criminality rather than developing broad-sweeping security-state models in response.

In response to questions about whether or not religious satire like Charlie Hebdo should be permitted, Simone Chambers offers an interesting compromise: civility, which she says “depends on a full exercise of free speech, especially critical speech.” Silencing speech doesn’t work, she argues; more effective is to permit offensive speech in order for the ensuing public criticism to reveal society’s disapproval. Civility – enforced through public criticism, not legal bans – will lead to greater self-restraint on the part of publishers like Charlie Hebdo who, she feels, will respond to public rejection by making an ethical choice not to offend. While acknowledging that public standards of civility and appropriateness vary greatly from place to place, culture to culture, and across time periods and generations, she hopes nonetheless that public criticism will “[enforce] civility by diminishing the power of offensive speech to offend.”

Language emerges in other potent, nuanced forms, as well. Ruth Marshall examines the French conception of ‘laicite’ (secularism) and its relationship to France’s colonial past, which she suggests bears direct continuity to its Islamophobic present. Mark G. Toulouse explores the use of the word ‘evil’ in discussions about terrorism and state security. No longer merely an adjective, evil has become a noun, he says, embodied by actual people and groups. It’s no longer an ‘evil choice’ or ‘evil action’ that people do; instead evil is now a force; a tangible thing to be sought out and destroyed. This notion of a war on evil was introduced to great effect by US President George Bush, but has been adopted by others in recent years, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In addition to shorter collections of articles that explore the broad geopolitical impacts of terrorism (under international law, for instance, and in broad historical perspective), and on media responses to terrorism, the extensive final section of After the Paris Attacks looks at specifically Canadian responses to terrorism. Bill C-51, the new security bill designed by the country’s federal Conservative government to address terrorist fears, is fatally flawed, write law professors Kent Roach and Craig Forcese. It “does nothing at the front end to prevent people from becoming radicalized, and it does nothing at the back end to facilitate terrorism prosecutions.” What it does do is aim to facilitate greater cooperation between intelligence agencies and also to empower CSIS agents to “disrupt” terrorist activities.

However, there’s a compelling argument that these provisions may actually make Canadians – and others – less safe. Encouraging unsupervised engagement between intelligence agencies can on the one hand lead to outsourcing of investigations to security agencies in other countries with inferior standards and lack of adherence to human rights norms; it can also mire investigations in controversy over collaboration with these problematic security agencies in other countries.

Moreover, disrupting terrorist activities doesn’t stop them. The only way of stopping terrorists permanently is criminal prosecutions, Roach and Forcese write, and the complex provisions allowing security agencies like CSIS to violate Charter rights is likely to simply undermine the ability of legitimate police forces to carry out the sort of criminal prosecutions that will land authentic terrorists behind bars for good. Meanwhile, disruptive measures like peace bonds and suspension of passports may do more harm than good: the increased likelihood of ‘false positives’ means that growing numbers of innocent citizens find their civil rights undermined with little to no recourse for appeal; while authentic terrorists and militants simply ignore the peace bonds and travel about (illegally) at will, as ample evidence has demonstrated.

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