Credible Threats, Appropriate Responses, and C-51

Today as I was jogging, I listened to a fascinating documentary on CBC’s show Ideas called Conflicted Cities. I highly recommend it. It was originally posted last October, but I found that it spoke directly to Bill C-51, which passed this week.

It talked about the shift in conflict, away from nation-vs.-nation fighting on open battlefields and toward rebels and militias fighting in cities. It looked specifically at the Al-Shabaab attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai in 2008, and at how different nations have responded to such threats. Here are some notable points from the documentary, and then I’ll talk about how they relate to C-51.

Conflicted Cities

  1. The shift to cities as battlegrounds is at least partially in response to the ways we’ve changed warfare. For example, we now have radars that can see below foliage, which means that we can target militias hiding out in the forest with drone strikes. Cities are much safer places for them now because of this. Another technology brought up was social media: the Mumbai attackers coordinated their attacks with amazing precision using Twitter.

A point about the shift from national armies to rebel militias and terrorist cells that the documentary didn’t make, but seems clear to me, is that most of the warfare in the past few decades has been in nations that have either a very weak national government, or none at all. This is also largely thanks to us: Western intervention, while done with excellent intentions of saving lives and bringing democracy, has led to many changes in government and the further destabilizing of already unstable regions. In the absence of a central power and army, militias and other armed groups form. Afghanistan is a good example: after the US used Afghanistan to fight a proxy war against Russia in the 1980’s, they more or less left it devastated. The fighters who were trained and supplied by the US, including Osama bin Laden, maintained their militias and organizations, but the lack of centralized power allowed the Taliban to move in. When the US and Canada returned to fight Al Qaeda, we ended up spending a decade fighting the Taliban. The mission lasted so long because pulling out without first installing a government with the power to protect its people would have led to a violent power struggle between various armed groups for control of the region. At the same time, the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent arrest and execution of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum that led to years of violence between different groups within Iraq, and now to the rise of the Islamic State, which has filled the power vacuum. And now we’ve joined the fight in Iraq. If we are able to defeat ISIS, will the people of Iraq be able to elect a stable government? In any case, it’s no wonder we fight militias and terrorists instead of national armies – the “nations” we’re fighting in aren’t much of nations at all anymore.

  1. There isn’t much that we can do to stop this kind of attack, but we need to feel like we’re doing something. The documentary producer talked about visiting a different shopping mall in Nairobi now, and how entering the mall required having his car and bag searched. He said how hollow it felt, being searched by an guard and knowing that this guard couldn’t actually stop an attack like the one on the Westgate mall in 2013. Those terrorists had planned their attack well, and in spite of the fact that the Westgate mall was already well guarded, four armed men were able to hold it for several hours and kill 62 people, injuring 120 others.

Increasing security in visible ways is usually the first response to incidents like this, whether or not those security increases are useful. Airport security is a prime example: it changes regularly, tightening up suddenly whenever there’s an international incident, and then decreasing slowly over time as people get irritated by the number of restrictions and airports get less and less efficient at moving passengers through. We haven’t been able to bring outside liquids or gels onto a plane except in tiny quantities ever since a bombing plot was discovered in 2006 which would have involved several terrorists smuggling liquid components of a bomb onto a plane separately in order to be combined during the flight. The plot was discovered and no such bomb was ever made, but now the entire world has to squeeze out half a tube of toothpaste before boarding a plane, and for the most part we feel good about it because it looks like we’re taking security very seriously. Unfortunately, many responses to these threats (which are real) do more harm than half a tube of toothpaste.

  1. Over-policing and over-surveillance are not just ineffective, but they can be harmful. The documentary pointed out that the UK, which has the world’s largest closed-circuit security camera system, has found that it doesn’t actually deter or stop crime. It does help them to solve crimes after the fact, but it doesn’t actually keep people safer. At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that shows that over-surveillance and over-policing results in a general distrust and disrespect for police and government, which may actually increase crime.

The documentary pointed out that some governments are militarizing their police forces, or even calling in the army or national guard to act as police forces, when dealing with militias or organized crime that they can’t control. In the US there’s actually a program in which the US military sells its old equipment to police forces. The ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri is a good example of what happens when a police force is militarized, and it’s not something anyone should try to emulate. Militarized situations can get out of hand quickly, and some governments (Jamaica was mentioned briefly) end up using artillery within their own cities, putting civilians at risk. It’s no wonder that, in this age of warfare, military deaths are extremely low and civilian deaths are extremely high.

  1. We’re pouring billions of dollars into security to deal with terrorist threats in our cities, but climate change is a much bigger threat. The documentary pointed out that most major cities in the world are port cities at risk from the tropical storms and hurricanes that happen more frequently and violently in a warming climate. The devastation of New Orleans in hurricane Katrina, and the damage to New York from Sandy, were minor compared to the effect they would have had in other places with less infrastructure and support and higher populations. If Sandy had hit Malaysia, 20 million people would have been under water. New York is one of the first cities to plan for climate change, with a multi-billion dollar fund; if more governments were to put the money into addressing climate change that we’re currently putting into anti-terrorism security and wars, we could do much to address climate change and protect people around the world from a much larger threat than terrorism could ever be.


  1. Going back to the first point about the changing nature of war, C-51 comes as a response to the Parliament Hill shooting, which itself was done explicitly in response to the presence of Canadian troops in Muslim countries. Canadian, US, and British troops have been on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Pakistan, more or less continually since 2001, and the civilian death toll has been high, particularly in relation to drone strikes and air strikes. C-51 is a response to a threat of our own making, and an attempt to catch up to this new style of warfare that we’ve helped create (against enemies we’ve helped create).

  2. There isn’t much in C-51 that can actually do much to make us safer. Elizabeth May brought this up over and over again. This clip is really worth watching, but I’ll summarize a few points. First, the bill includes a lot about sharing information between government agencies, which is a great idea; but this bill doesn’t actually require that they do so, and the way it’s set up is clumsy. Second, the bill intends to deal with radicalization, but it does so by isolating perceived radicals, which would not enable a community to address radicalization itself (and as Elizabeth May points out, radicalization often happens in prison – C-51 would put more radicals in prison, but has no provision to prevent radicalization that occurs within prisons). Third, this bill claims to require judicial oversight before allowing government agents to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms(!), but it actually doesn’t.

All of that to say that this bill is all sizzle and no steak. Terrorism is a real and credible threat, so we need to be smart about the ways we try to address it. This bill was rushed through (as usual for this government) in an attempt to look like the government is doing something to protect Canadians.

3.&4 Over-surveillance and over-policing is already having negative effects on Canadians. Remember the G-20 protests, which led to over 1,000 people being arrested and held for a few days without charge, with almost all of them never being charged? Remember the protests at Burnaby Mountain in relation to the Kinder Morgan pipeline planned to run through it, and the police harassment that followed? There are many other examples of ways the government has quashed dissent that were either illegal or nearly so; C-51 would legitimize those actions and others like them, without judicial oversight. A government agent would only need a good hunch that someone was a terrorist – and “terrorist” isn’t very well defined. The definition in the bill includes anyone who participates in civil disobedience in relation to “critical infrastructure”, which includes pipelines or proposed pipeline routes. There are also harsh penalties and expanded powers in relation to “propaganda.” So environmentalists and First Nations bands are effectively being labelled as terrorists because we’re willing to stand up and say that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism and a bigger priority than corporate profits. In fact, leaked RCMP documents show that environmentalists are already considered terrorists. This undermines the credibility of the government with a significant portion of its citizens, and poses a threat to those citizens who are now able to be spied on, harassed, and stripped of their Charter rights by a government whose ideology they oppose.


Terrorism is a real threat that has changed the world, and we should have legislation in place that allows our law enforcement agencies to work together effectively to deal with it. C-51 is not that legislation. It’s a rushed bill made to look like we’re doing something; it poses a greater threat to Canadians that terrorism itself does; it does little or nothing to make us safer; and it funnels resources and attention away from greater threats. Consider that when you’re voting this Fall: all Conservative and Liberal MPs voted for this bill, in spite of massive public opposition to it. Vote for someone who will inform you about the bill’s strengths and weaknesses and ask you what you think about it.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon

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