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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Security versus Liberty

Security versus liberty. This is a debate that all western societies have wrestled with in the wake of 9/11 and now here in Canada in the run up to a federal election it has emerged as a major “wedge” issue between the minority Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the opposition Liberals led by Stephan Dion. This is ironic given the legislation being debated by Harperwas originally implemented by a Liberal government.

In response to the horrifying terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the majority Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretein enacted Canada's first anti-terrorism legislation. This legislation defined what terrorism is and made it a punishable offence within Canada's Criminal Code.

Canada’s Security Act (Bills C-36 and C-42), was the subject of heated debate and controversy as Chretein’s government fast-tracked it through the House of Commons and the Liberal-dominated Senate. The Act became part of the Criminal Code on December 18, 2001. The changes to the code are "aimed at disabling and dismantling the activities of terrorists groups and those who support them."

However, in a nod to civil libertarians, the bill contained a five-year sunset clause on some of its more controversial elements and it was the proposal by Harper’s minority government to extend those provisions that provoked a storm of controversy and a split within the federal Liberal caucus in Parliament last month.

Of the two clauses that were at the heart of the debate, one allowed police to arrest suspects without a warrant and detain them for three days without charges if police believe a terrorist act may be committed. The other allowed a judge to compel a witness to testify in secret about past associations or perhaps pending acts under penalty of going to jail if the witness did not comply. It is worth noting that neither clause had been used by police or prosecutors in the five years these provisions had been in place.

When Bills C-36 and C-42 were passed, the legislation had three main objectives: To suppress existing terrorist groups, provide police with new investigative tools, and toughen prison sentences for terrorists. The bills also contained provisions to comply with new UN rules on combating terrorism as well as with similar laws that were being put in place in the U.S. and Britain.

In June 2006, then Conservative justice minister Vic Toews said the government had no plans to toughen Canada’s Security Act after the arrest of 17 suspected terrorists in Toronto last year. However, he said, it may consider changing the law's definition of terrorism, which is called the motive clause.

This clause defines a terrorist act as one committed "for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause." Toews said there are two problems with that definition: it could lead to profiling of people of a particular religion, Islam especially, and it could be difficult for prosecutors to provide evidence of a suspect's personal beliefs.

On February 27, 2007 a motion to extend two controversial anti-terrorist measures was defeated 159 to 124 in the House of Commons in Ottawa. After the vote, Prime Minister Stephen Harper berated the Liberals for choosing "internal caucus politics over the national security of Canadians."
A dozen Liberal MPs including former Prime Minister Paul Martin and BC MPs Keith Martin (no relation) and Ujjal Dosanjh absented themselves from the vote, while another Liberal MP Tom Wappel even broke ranks and voted with the Conservative minority government.
Since a federal election is expected to happen as soon as this spring, Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasted no time in trying to utilize the outcome of the vote for partisan purposes. "Any party that doesn't take the national security of Canadians seriously will never be chosen by Canadians to form the government of Canada," he said outside the Commons.

But to be fair to Stephan Dion, there has been growing fatigue amongst Canadians with the numerous inconveniences that have gone along with the so called war on terror. Going through airport security is now a major hassle with every passing month seeming to bring ever more tedious restrictions.

Here in Canada we have been fortunate in that our last terrorist attack was over twenty years ago. This was when Sikh militants planted a bomb in a suitcase on Air India flight 182 which blew up on June 22, 1985. The bombing killed 329 people including 82 children. Just as most of the victims of Muslim extremists are Muslims, most of the people killed by Sikh extremists on Air India were also Sikh.

It was another incident, a terrorist attack which failed, which also suggests that perhaps the best defence against terrorism is not giving more power to government but more power to ourselves. In December 2001 British born Muslim Richard Reid was on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami when he was spotted attempting to light a fuse protruding from his shoe. Passengers and crew immediately attacked and restrained him and Reid was subsequently arrested for attempted murder and was sentencted to life in prison.

Having a Security Act in these troubled times is a prudent thing. But as Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, “the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Thus investing too much power in the state is tantamount to signing away the very freedoms that Canadians fought for and died fighting fascism in Europe and communism in Korea. Those freedoms were signed with the blood of our fathers and grandfathers and we must never let fear coerce us into signing away those freedoms.

I would much rather have my children live in fear of terrorism than live in fear of their own government. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” And to paraphrase another founding father of the United States, Bejamin Franklin, “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither and will lose both.”

Thus even though the circumstances may have had much more to do with partisan politics and a pending federal election I believe parliament made the right choice when they let those two controversial sections of Canada’s Security Act expire.

Now if only we could get our MPs to show some real initiative and do something about the ridiculously long lineups at the passport office.

Michael Geoghegan is an entrepreneur and consultant who lives in Victoria, BC. He can be contacted via his website at www.mgcltd.ca

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