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.
We Might Consider Pericles’ Anti-security Establishment Point of View
A recurring theme in criticism of Bill C-51 – and other counter-terrorism legislation around the world – is the fact that much of this legislation has the appearance of knee-jerk public reaction, and is not grounded in evidence-based analysis. Usage of the Internet, some researchers say, plays only a very modest role in recruitment of militant terrorists; in-person recruitment and radicalization remains of primary importance. Making it easier to detain potential suspects – including heightened numbers of ‘false positives’ – may in fact increase the likelihood of their actually being recruited and radicalized in prisons and detention centres.
Likewise, quick action to delete or shut down even moderate sites of public speech and debate around terrorism on the Internet removes key opportunities for intelligence agencies to identify and track authentic and potential terrorists. Moreover, given the fact that the most active and militant online discussions occur on servers that are physically located abroad, restrictive laws can’t even tackle the most dangerous sites of online organizing.
Most problematic, however, is the fact that these ‘soft measures’ which restrict speech tend to only harm the innocent, by stifling legitimate democratic discussion and debate, and by infringing on the rights of innocent civilians and ‘false positives’. Actual militants and radicals are, again, unaffected by such measures and continue to travel in and out of the country illegally and engage in recruitment activities of their own.
A growing critique of expansive counter-terrorism measures lies in their impact on individual privacy rights. As security agencies shift from focused collection of data to broad sweeps of everything they can obtain, questions are rightfully raised about the erosion of privacy rights. Courts have expressed their broad disapproval of security laws that infringe on privacy, and it’s likely that laws such as C-51 will face constitutional and legal challenges despite government efforts to ‘Charter-proof’ the legislation. An important dimension of these concerns lies in the emphasis on increased cooperation between the security agencies of different countries. While theoretically the collection and use of data about Canadians is governed by Canadian law (and likewise for citizens in other countries), once that information is shared, domestic privacy or security laws no longer govern its use by those other countries.
Recent revelations indicate that Canada also plays this game both overtly and covertly: while denouncing hacker attacks and data theft by Chinese state hackers, it turns out Canada routinely hacks China’s hackers. What laws govern data stolen by Canadian government hackers from Chinese government hackers who operate outside Canada’s data collection laws? These concerns should worry citizens of other countries, too.
Recent research indicates that of greater concern than security versus privacy for many people, is the question of oversight for the agencies which collect that data and the role of public, democratic control over those agencies. When communities – particularly minority communities – experience intimidation or a lack of trust in state policing and security mechanisms, they are less likely to cooperate and engage with the state, often with dire result, as Ron Levi and Janice Gross Stein observe. The neighbours of the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been very worried about them and knew they had caches of weapons, yet “they did not report these weapons or their concerns to the Paris police because of what one reporter called the “chasm” between the French police and the Muslim community of the Paris banlieus.”
Inclusive policing that involves clearly visible methods of community input and oversight of policing practices helps to boost cooperation between community and police, and can also strengthen community prohibitions against criminality. Paris police may, belatedly, be getting the message, with the creation of a new prefect position responsible for working with Muslim and Jewish communities.
Moving Beyond Liberty and Security
Usefully, some of the contributions to this collection move beyond the increasingly tired liberty versus security debate. Former Canadian Senator (and Chair of the Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism) Hugh Segal points out that there’s nothing new about today’s terrorist threat: the post-WWII era was full of terrorist threats both domestic and international, while the deployment of troops and suspension of civil liberties in Quebec in response to separatist terrorists in that province more than four decades ago, involved the actual carrying out of a far greater violation of basic rights than the theoretical fears of today. Segal frames the question of intelligence agency oversight as one of balancing discretion with experience, and warns that when it comes to oversight of intelligence agencies Canada is woefully far behind its other NATO allies (in part because CSIS historically had very little power to act on its intelligence; something C-51 was designed to change). Segal draws out the mistrust between intelligence agencies and democratically elected politicians with refreshing frankness:
Within any military, intelligence, police, or criminal intelligence force, however high and compelling the prevailing ethical standards, distrust of elected politicians and aides and advisors close to them is endemic…This is not a deep-seated contempt in any subversive or disloyal sense. It is usually a sadly self-reverential view that some political actor will leak, or will be unable to manage or cope with the truth, or that some of the political clan will want to meddle without the skill or expertise to do so constructively. This last part about expertise becomes a self-fulfilling defining exclusion that continues to imperil any constructive accountability for our national security services.
Segal argues Canada ought to draw on the example of its NATO allies to develop oversight bodies which combine accountability to elected bodies with the experience and expertise necessary to make sense of their responsibility to the intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, former journalist Brian Stewart notes that the rapid growth in information technology has had a troubling impact on rational policy-making. The picture painted here is one in which technological innovations of recent years – satellite television, internet news and social media – have both hardened cultural divides and led to strategically weak policymaking. With near instantaneous coverage of wars, terrorism and other crises airing constantly on a round-the-clock media cycle, politicians feel growing pressure to respond quickly and visibly to all the disasters that are constantly being aired.
Rapid policy responses, however, are inevitably poorly planned and poorly informed. It takes time to obtain and filter information, to consider data from multiple angles, to develop long-term strategies that might miss objectives in the short-term but have the aim of achieving more effective long-term goals. The world is no more turbulent today than it was a century ago, yet improved technology has led to a perception that it is; a perception that has led to a growth in poor and failed policy reactions under pressure.
Indeed, terrorists exploit precisely this quality, committing violent acts not with the aim of achieving particular mission objectives, but with the aim of destabilizing societies by goading governments into poorly planned, knee-jerk responses. In this sense, western democracies continue to fall for the terrorist bait routinely ever since 9/11, passing knee-jerk legislation that divides and weakens their countries, undermines the democratic system, and leaves security and intelligence strategy in disarray.
Reframing the Issues
The contributions here, as in many collections (academic or otherwise) on the broad issue of how to respond to terrorism in the 21st century, with some exceptions tend to frame the ‘problem’ as follows: increased threats require a response, and balancing security with liberty is the resulting challenge we face. Contributors, then, tend to fall on one side or the other of the debate when it is framed like this: either they err on the side of liberty, or on the side of security. The contributions to this collection offer strong and insightful interventions on both sides of this debate.
On a broader level, one can’t help but wonder how useful this framing is. It clearly hasn’t moved the debate forward, and hasn’t produced much satisfaction on the part of either the public or policymakers. Could a shift in the framing help? Indeed (and as Fadel asks in this volume), should we even bother developing specialized responses to terrorist attacks? After all, we don’t typically respond to car crashes with sweeping redesigns of our transportation networks (halving the distance between traffic lights say, or halving the speed limit and imposing mandatory jail sentences on speeders). Nor do we respond to flu epidemics by criminalizing the act of knowingly going to work while ill, or jailing employers who endanger the workplace by conspiring to reduce sick leave.
These may be extreme examples, but they’re the equivalent of what policymakers tend to do in response to terrorism. Perhaps the best response is to treat terrorism like flu epidemics or car crashes: a product of human error in judgement which we must expect will occur from time to time (similar to burglaries or armed robbery) but which we do not allow to impact our approach to social order in any profound way.
Alternately, perhaps we ought to consider rejecting the security imperative altogether. Arguably the first anti-security establishment advocate in western history was the great Athenian statesman Pericles. In the famous funeral oration attributed to him, delivered at a public funeral for Athenian soldiers killed during the first year of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and its allies, he flatly rejects the notion of restricting the liberty of Athens’ citizens in the name of improving security: “We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality.”
So far as security policy goes, it’s a more courageous one than those of western democracies two millennia later.
The point is, perhaps the broad consensus among policymakers and academics that a balance between liberty and security ought to be the goal of public debate on terrorism, is no longer a productive one. Perhaps we ought to look for new ways to frame the concerns we feel, and the goals we seek. Clearly, the outcome of this ‘debate’ has thus far benefited neither side: security has not noticeably improved, and liberties have noticeably eroded. Perhaps a reframing of the entire issue, then, is in order.
Regardless, collections such as these still form an important part of the discussion, and there’s much to learn from all those who are contributing insights to these important conversations. In the absence of clear answers on how we should deal with terrorism, more discussion – creative, unstiffled, and free — is clearly what we need more of.