In The Media

Countering domestic political violence and the Islamic State: Canada needs a strategy

by Daryl Copeland

October 31, 2014

In the wake of last week’s disturbing events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richileau and Ottawa, Canadian policy and decision-makers are turning their attention to remedial action. So far, rather than a rigorous re-assessment and course correction, indications are that we are headed for more of the same, but possibly worse.

By way of alternatives, what would constitute an effective response to the combined threats posed by ISIS abroad and political violence at home?  Changes will be required in both domestic and international policy, but the best defence will have little to do with the application of armed force or the imposition of more stringent security measures.

A coherent strategy could give expression to five recommendations:

Resist over-reaction. The importance of resolute resilience and a commitment to moderation cannot be overemphasized. To be sure, law enforcement and intelligence agencies should – within reason – be provided with the tools and resources required to do their jobs. Extremist financial flows and use of the social and digital media, for instance, should be aggressively disrupted. The physical security of Parliament can certainly be improved without inflicting undue constraints upon public access. Yet measures such as strengthening police powers while loosening controls on surveillance and the activities of security services plays into the hands of ISIS propagandists and can easily produce counterproductive results.

In a free and democratic nation, risk can be managed, but never eliminated. At present, existing legal authorities are under-utilized. Given the impossibility of uncovering every plot through prior detection, governments should focus on longer term prevention by addressing the fundamental drivers and – yes – the  root causes of violence and insecurity.

Reconsider basic assumptions. While the military may have a role, in a more profound sense security is not a martial art. It flows instead from an absence of want and fear, from the provision of opportunity and the meeting of basic needs, and from the engineering of a set of political, economic, environmental and social circumstances in which individuals are able to pursue their goals without encountering inordinate obstacles or constraints. Security, in other words, is the flip side of something equally elusive: development. In that respect, economic growth and various forms of aid still have a place, but long term, human-centred, equitable and sustainable development, like security, implies something much larger.

While there remains a pressing need to advance debate about the human prospect in what we used to call the Third World, very real development challenges still confront us here at home.     

Rebuild the social safety net. The links, if any, between  the activities of ISIS and  Martin Couture-Rouleau or Michael Zehaf-Bibeau  remain unclear. In each case, emotional disorders or mental illness may have played a larger part than their association with, or inspiration by terrorists or terrorism. Islamic extremism and political violence tend to appeal most to those who feel marginalized and disempowered, or who empathize, often virtually, with the suffering and exploitation of Muslims elsewhere. In Canada, inequality has been growing while opportunities for upward mobility have diminished and programs and services at all levels of government have been cut – a volatile combination. In such conditions, fundamentalist ideological proselytization is more likely to give rise to desperate actions, even if only among a relative few of the most vulnerable.

What to do? Increase taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals in order to address inequality, and enhance publicly-funded activities intended to foster a stronger sense of community, connectedness, fairness and inclusivity.

Rethink foreign and defence policy. However difficult to accept, last week’s killings should not have come as a surprise. Every event has a cause, and prior Western military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya has angered and alienated many. Canada’s contribution in Iraq is largely symbolic – the major powers in the “coalition” do not much need our modest military muscle – but we have joined the battle and Canadian participation has been noticed. In terms of dissuading or deterring future attacks, this can only prove unhelpful.

The elemental aspects of Canada’s once-admired brand – peacekeeper, generous aid donor, honest broker, innovative multilateralist – have disappeared forever. A comprehensive review is necessary if something more supple and substantial than bluster and bellicosity is to be inserted into the vacuum.

Reconstruct our place in the world. More the globalization nation than the universal soldier, primary Canadian interests do not include participation in the Global War on Terror, Round II.  Indeed, even the use of the word “terror” – a highly amorphous term used commonly to justify ever more stringent and invasive measures – promotes a politics of fear. That is not the sort of international image with which Canadians should wish to be associated.

Notwithstanding assertions to the contrary, and relative to issues such as climate change, diminishing biodiversity or stewardship of the global commons, for the vast majority of Canadians the threat posed by terrorism is miniscule. It could be reduced further by abstaining from military adventures and focussing instead on diplomatic initiatives and the provision of enlightened humanitarian assistance.

To conclude, the last thing Canada needs is a piecemeal policy mix that sows the seeds of violence among the deeply disaffected at home and invites retaliation from jihadis abroad. In the messy, complicated and disorderly world which is the emerging heteropolis, the time has come for strategic reflection… and corrective action.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy and a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.


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