Northern Exposure


Many Americans, preoccupied with the politics of their southern border, are accustomed to paying scant attention to events beyond their northern boundary. Yet in the past month, dramatic developments in the war on terror have plunged Canada into denunciation, exasperation, and doubt. On the evening of Friday, June 2, hundreds of local, provincial, and federal police officers conducted dozens of raids throughout southern Ontario, arresting seventeen men and boys, and charging them with plotting grave acts of terror. The deeds said to have been prevented by this action ranged from bombing the Canadian Intelligence Agency and seizing the Parliament Buildings, to beheading the prime minister and storming the offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

News that a “home-grown” cell of young male Muslims was allegedly intent on producing a Canadian 9/11 has sparked a media war, with hundreds of stories rehashing the violent tendencies of young males, the nature of Islamic radicalism, the laxness of Canadian security, and so on. The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily, beat the competition so thoroughly on the story that the New York Times ran an article explaining how on top of things the Star is. (The Star quickly repaid the favor by reprinting the Times story as a full-page ad the next day.) Sniping back and forth about who is Muslim-baiting and who is appeasing, who is tough enough and who is too naive, has become the stuff of letters to the editor, blogs, and radio talk shows.

The arrests set off shock waves of rumination and recrimination. Some columnists and op-ed writers began to ask if Canadians were unwilling to face harsh truths about young Muslim men and the threat they posed. Meanwhile, a mosque was attacked in Toronto, and in Montreal an imam was assaulted. Police called for calm. Editorialists and politicians stressed the need to extend a presumption of innocence to the seventeen suspects, and insisted that religion itself was not at the root of any alleged plot. Other politicians and opinion-writers wondered, If not religion, what did drive Canadian citizens to plot such alleged heinous crimes? Further, why was peaceful, tolerant, diverse, and multicultural Canada now the target of terror attacks in the first place? The introspection went deep, and wrestled with the question of whether the multiculturalism Canadians are so proud of must be abandoned in the interest of security.

Mulling over the ground rules of tolerance and diversity is complicated by our relationship with the United States. Conservative American politicians and religious leaders have taken the arrests as proof that Canada is a hotbed of Islamist terror, and that our “lax” security systems, “liberal immigration policies,” and porous joint border pose a real and present danger. The widespread belief among Americans that Canadian security and immigration policies played a role in the attacks of 9/11 has always irritated Canadians, who point out that not one of the terrorists entered the United States from the north. Canadians struggling with the implications of the new “plot” listened with disbelief as Congressman John Hostettler (R-Ind.) and panelists on Fox News called for an end to the idea of the world’s longest undefended border.

The terror arrests in Ontario took place against the backdrop of a deepening domestic argument about Canada’s part in the war in Afghanistan. Canada prides itself on its peacekeeping history; but as the country’s role in the southern Khandahar region of Afghanistan increases, and the death toll of Canadian troops climbs, some observers are asking if the country is not simply making itself a target for Islamist extremists. Others argue that the uncovered plot was evidence that the war in Afghanistan was a necessary fight in the global effort to deal with terror.

Ironically, the arrests came less than two weeks before a hearing at the Canadian Supreme Court on the issue of national security warrants. Created after the attacks of 9/11, the warrants allow for the arrest and deportation of noncitizens on suspicion. As the law currently stands, evidentiary hearings are held in secret; neither the accused, nor their lawyers, are allowed to be present. Canadian Justice Department lawyers have argued that national security needs must govern Canada today, and that the warrants allow the nation to protect itself. But skeptics recall when Canadian intelligence agents and police announced the uncovering of an “Al Qaeda sleeper cell” two years ago, arresting a score of Pakistani citizens in Canada on suspicion that they were engaged in plotting attacks within Canada. Those arrests resulted in no charges or convictions, and were characterized by many as simply the result of religious and racial profiling. Today, some wonder whether a plot involving mainly young men and teenage boys (one discovered from its very beginnings by intelligence agents and monitored every step of the way) was truly a threat or simply the violence-charged fantasies of disaffected youth.

The Canadian justice minister added a further wrinkle when, eleven days after the arrests, he argued for dropping the phrase “political, religious, or ideological purpose” from the definition of terrorism in Canada’s antiterrorism legislation. Religious leaders applauded the move, while hawks wondered if it amounted to mere pandering. Canadian Muslim leaders, who have gone to great pains since the arrests to portray the alleged plots as not indicative of an anti-Canada orientation, introduced their own wrinkle when they released a statement by Iraqi Muslim leader Ali al-Sistani calling on all Muslims to “respect the laws and protect the country they live in.”

The difficulty in knowing what the arrests and charges of June 2 will ultimately mean for Canada resembles the difficulty all Western democracies are facing. Drawing the line between religion and terror is a fine art-with great potential for getting it wrong. The worry here is that Canada may slip into the xenophobic Dutch model of reaction that manifested itself after the murder of Theo van Gogh. An even larger worry-always the greater Canadian worry-is that the June 2 event will drive governments to adopt a more pro-American line and policy in dealing with threats of terror, whether “religiously motivated” or not. One thing is certain: violence has a way of calling deeply cherished values into question. Amid the past month’s swirling mess of rumor, allegation, and mistrust, it has become that much harder to be a liberal, religious Canadian.

Published in the 2006-07-14 issue: 

Peter Kavanagh is a senior producer on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program, Current Affairs.

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Northern exposure

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