In a holding room at the Ottawa airport with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the evening of November 13, 2015, watching live coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris. (Photo credit: Adam Scotti)
One of the tests of political leaders today is how they respond to the threat of terrorism. There are dangers in both under-reacting and over-reacting.
Failure to treat terrorism as a genuine threat would raise doubts about any leader’s commitment to public safety. But over-reacting by creating permanent states of emergency, eroding fundamental freedoms, or exploiting public fears for political gain – a trend we have seen in some Western countries – poses its own threat to open societies.
So how is Justin Trudeau doing so far?
Let’s begin by dispensing with the fiction, trafficked by some conservative commentators, that Trudeau does not take terrorism seriously. I know from personal experience that this is untrue. He is committed to keeping Canadians safe.
More to the point, so far the prime minister has struck the right balance in both his anti-terrorism policy and his public remarks.
Countering terrorism requires a multifaceted approach, both at home and abroad. Below is a checklist of what I think the key elements of such an approach should include. Against it, the Trudeau government has been doing a good job:
Collaborating with allies and partners to confront transnational terrorist entities abroad, including through Canada’s ongoing contributions to the anti-ISIL coalition, and by sharing intelligence on foreign fighters and terrorist financial flows.
Supporting good policing and intelligence work at home in order to track threats and prevent attacks.
Working with communities in Canada to reduce the risks of radicalization among their young people.
Contributing to international efforts to build security in fragile states, including through a renewed commitment to peace operations, in order to prevent the spread of violent unrest that terrorist entities often exploit.
Continuing the work of the Nuclear Security Summit process (the final summit was this year) to secure radiological materials and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
Working with Muslim leaders internationally to communicate a positive and peaceful vision of Islam to counter violent jihadist propaganda.
Rejecting discrimination against Muslims within our own society and encourage other countries to do the same.
Ensuring that security agencies and first responders are prepared to respond to a terrorist incident in Canada, should one occur.
It remains to be seen how the Trudeau government will deal with Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, passed by the previous Conservative government. Recent accounts of a foiled terror attack in Canada have shone a new light on the subject. But as my colleague Craig Forcese writes, we should resist the "tremendous temptation to rush to judgment" about this alleged plot and its implications for Canada's anti-terrorism laws and strategies. Any lessons, including for the use of "peace bonds," need to be drawn out carefully, when more information on this case is available.
But more broadly, the government's commitment to amend Bill C-51 to better protect Canadians' Charter rights remains an important objective that should be acted upon soon.
Talking about Terrorism
If the government's policy approach to terrorism has been serious and judicious so far, what about the manner in which Justin Trudeau has talked about terrorism?
Although the number of people who die from terrorist attacks in Canada is vanishingly small – not just in relation to other causes of death, but in absolute terms – publics are understandly fearful of this type of violence. Social scientists may tally probabilities, but a politician's craft is to communicate with their people. And fear is a felt emotion, not a coldly rational calculation.
Responsible political leaders have to demonstrate that they grasp people’s fears and take them seriously, while providing reassurance that the government is taking appropriate steps to ensure public safety, but without inflaming these fears or exaggerating them.
Justin Trudeau has passed this test, too.
But more tests await. No society is immune from terrorism. There is no way to monitor every possible danger or secure every public space. (Not even police states are capable of doing so.) At some point in the future, somewhere in Canada, there will be another terrorist attack.
And when that happens, it will be the Canadian people, and not just our politicians, who will be tested. Stephen Harper tried to play upon public fears of terrorism and “the other” during the 2015 federal election – and thankfully failed.
Let’s hope the Canadian public continues to keep its head.