Commentary from Colin Robertson

Balance between liberty and security is crucial, even as governments press for wider surveillance to fight terror

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
February 3, 2015

Liberty and security: we want both. But at what price? The federal government’s proposed legislation to bolster our defences against terrorist threats raises, again, the see-saw debate between rights and responsibilities and the state’s obligation to preserve order.

Governments, whether right, left or centre, naturally want to cover all contingencies – what is more basic than protection of the state and its citizens. The natural tendency to overreach follows from this.

Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War. When Pierre Trudeau was asked how far he’d go to preserve order against bandits and blackmail during the FLQ crisis, the then-prime minister, and later father of our Charter of Rights, famously responded, “Just watch me.”

Hastily enacted and liberally applied wartime measures – alien and sedition laws and internments – are usually the subject of second thoughts and retrospective regrets.

The best counterweights to abuse are threefold: continuing oversight by elected representatives coupled with sunset provisions within the legislation; a vigilant media; and the courts with their judicial override in protection of our liberties.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper argues that because the international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada and its allies, the proposed measures – additional security powers; restrictions on suspected jihadists’ mobility and propaganda – are necessary and in line with those of our allies.

Announcement of the new measures coincides with the third-reading debate on legislation introduced after the October assassinations of two members of the Canadian military in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. The Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act is necessary, said Tory MP LaVar Payne, to “degrade and destroy” the terrorists before they bring their “barbaric, violent ideology to our shores.”

The opposition asks appropriate questions about the constitutionality, scope and extent of the legislation and wonders about the roots ofjihadism. Justin Trudeau was mocked when he raised this question but it is pertinent.

Preventing radicalization confronts and frustrates all Western governments. Good intelligence and law enforcement can contain the threat but blocking the road to radicalization obliges the active involvement of family, community and schools.

Islamic religious leadership also needs to step up. The divide between church and state that the Reformation established for Christianity is much more tentative for Islam.

It’s not easy, as the British government discovered when it was accused of Islamaphobia after writing to more than 1,000 imams to ask them to explain how Islam can be “part of British identity.” The government argued that it had a duty to fight extremism.

Canadians are justly proud of our pluralism. That our identity derives from two official languages, our First Nations and the people of many different cultures and countries is cause for celebration. We continue to encourage nation-building through an active immigration policy and generous refugee resettlement.

It’s not without challenges but, comparatively, it works and continues to enjoy broad public support.

To its credit, the Harper government has sustained, even increased immigration, while remedying abuse and putting the emphasis on the responsibilities that come with citizenship.

The defence of liberty, especially individual liberty, is integral to being Canadian. But liberty, as the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin explored, is often in contradiction with other values, like equality.

At its root, jihadism is an idea, like communism and fascism, that promises a new utopia. Mr. Berlin observed of utopias that “nothing so wonderfully expands the imaginative horizons of human potentialities – but as guides to conduct they can prove literally fatal.”

We witness the spread of jihad abroad and worry about its attraction at home. Laws, law enforcement and our armed forces play a vital role but they are only a piece of the solution. This is why Islamic leadership, especially the imams, have a responsibility to get actively involved.

Writing in Two Concepts of Liberty, Mr. Berlin warned that “when ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they often acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.”

Preserving liberty is often about making choices that temporarily curb our liberties. We must ensure any abridgment is accountable and truly temporary.

The current and impending anti-terrorist measures alone will not endjihadism. This requires an attitudinal shift, especially amongst those best placed to stop those attracted to the call of jihad.

Inscribed on the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67 was the phrase: “Rights are the rewards of responsibility.” Good enough for our centennial year, it has equal application for our approaching sesquicentennial.


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