In the shadow of 9/11

Debating the impact of the attacks and how it changed Canadian life, laws and liberties

In the shadow of 9/11

Photography by Greg Locke

Last week in St. John’s, Maclean’s and CPAC hosted a round-table conversation entitled, “How has 9/11 changed our world?” In this wide-ranging discussion of the emotional, practical, political and cultural fallout in the decade following the attacks, Maclean’s columnists Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells were joined on the stage by David Collenette, Canada’s minister of transport at the time of 9/11 attacks, Sukanya Pillay, director of the national security program for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Tarek Fatah, political activist, author, broadcaster and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress. The discussion was moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen. The following is an edited excerpt.

Andrew Coyne: I don’t know what future historians will make of the grand sweep of September 11 and its place in world history, but there’s no doubt the last 10 years of our lives have been in the shadow of it and very much dominated by it. If there’s one thing that we should certainly remember on this anniversary it is the nature of the threat that al-Qaeda presented and still to some extent presents. It is, I think, unique and new, something new in world history, the combination of the willingness to inflict casualties on just an enormous scale, and the technological capacity married with it. I do think, though, we should, if we’re putting everything in the balance, take stock of the fact that 10 years later we have seriously degraded al-Qaeda’s capacity. We’ll discuss a lot of the pros and cons of how the battle has been fought, but I just want to leave people with the impression that it was a battle worth fighting, and it’s been broadly successful.

Paul Wells: The question before us is how did his happen, and I think it’s a combination of two things, extremism—or, to use a simpler term, evil—on one side, and complacency on the other. The extremism persists, and the complacency is gone, but it’s important to understand what those 19 men in those airplanes were trying to do: they were trying to provoke the West. The nature of asymmetrical warfare is you use the limited means at your disposal to essentially trip up a much larger and more powerful opponent, and to some extent those 19 men have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. We have to keep our vigilance up, we have to keep working. This is not a war that is going to go away just because a zero comes up at the end of the anniversaries. I think we are still in this for a very long time, which is why we have to make sure that, in defending our values, we don’t betray them.

David Collenette: In the spectrum of history there have always been terrorist acts. The difference here is that, and I think Andrew touched on it, modern technology was used in such a way—that is, jet aircraft—with civilians hostage to kill other civilians on such a scale, and not only the scale but striking at the heart of the largest, most powerful country in the world, the largest economy in the world, and really getting the heart of the financial centre and capitalism with its attacks. It’s turned the world upside down, it turned governments upside down, the security measures that had to be brought in place, the money that’s been spent. The United States today is a paranoid, insecure country, the people are frightened, and we live right next door. They’re our largest trading partner, we travel there, we have friends, we have relatives, we holiday there, and so it’s impacted Canadians.

Sukanya Pillay: Let me just add that I would agree that terrorism is not new, but what’s happened here is that it’s new in scope, it’s transnational, and the means have been new. So I think it’s very important for us to look at lessons like Northern Ireland. Yes, it’s different, nobody’s diminishing the scope of it, but the danger comes when it becomes an excuse to dismantle our existing laws and safeguards, because then we go down the slippery slope of fighting lawlessness with lawlessness, and we don’t need to do that. If we’re going to make people guilty by association, we have a problem. If we’re going to survey certain communities and make them feel afraid to associate with somebody because they think that suddenly they might be labelled as a terrorist or a conspirator, what are we doing in our own country?

Tarek Fatah: First, any Canadian Arab who went to Afghanistan didn’t go on the hippie trail. Number two, all these incessant claims about harassment are coming from people who do have an issue with how Western civilization exists today. When you have prayers in mosques that ask for the defeat of the infidel and the victory of Muslims over there over the rest of Canada, and it goes on without any stopping from anyone—you’ve got kids who were five who are now 15 who have been told repeatedly, “You’re victims, you’re victims!” There’s an entire industry built around victimhood.

Coyne: If the question is, are we less safe or more safe because the Taliban is out of power in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein is out of power in Iraq, I would say without a doubt we are safer for both of those regimes being gone. Not only are the people of those countries looking forward to a better future as a result of that, but we in the rest of the world are also safer as a result. So if that were the way the question were framed I would say, without a doubt, we’re safer.

Peter Van Dusen: How has the West responded to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, has that response been justified, has it been appropriate, and has it been successful?

Pillay: Well, I think the big problem that we have in the West is that we have felt a need to dismantle our existing legal structure. Even today we’ve heard in conversation some of the people saying about there being a need to balance security and civil liberties, and I would suggest that this paradigm in itself is somewhat flawed, because civil liberties are strong enough to support security efforts. There are only a few civil liberties that can never be infringed. Those would be the prohibition against torture, habeas corpus and equality. When we talk about something being necessary, it has to be absolutely necessary for the purpose that we’re seeking to achieve, it just can’t be one possible method. So if we suddenly start surveilling everybody and have cameras on every street corner, we’re looking at everybody’s email if there’s a certain word that comes up, suddenly we’re no longer in the realm of proportional, but we are in the realm of a surveillance society, and is that where we want to go?

Van Dusen: And we also know this week the Prime Minister announced that the government will be reintroducing those two sunsetted anti-terrorism clauses, investigative hearings, the rights of police to arrest terrorism suspects and hold them without charge for three days, and to compel suspects to appear before a judge to testify to what they may know about possible terrorist plots. Tarek Fatah, are these are all good things?

Fatah: You can’t label them as good laws. You can call them necessary laws because we’re in a state of war, and even though most Canadians do not want to address the issues of the word “enemy” or who’s attacking us, or what is this all about, the fact remains that we are today in a situation where if I had been in some place of authority and I noticed there was a pattern of young, single men travelling to Mogadishu and back, I would require that they be debriefed when they came back. We do have a situation here where behaviours have to be monitored. But I’ve travelled extensively and I tell you, I’ve been travelling since the 1970s, at every airport, with my name, Tarek, Fatah as a last name, and I’ve been subject to being asked to stand on the side since 1976. So there are some things that come with the cards that you are dealt with.

Van Dusen: David Collenette, with the government saying it’s going to reintroduce those sunsetted clauses back into the law—good idea or a bad idea?

Collenette: I think it’s a necessary idea. We are not out of the war on terrorism yet. We brought in the instrument for the right reason. It was never used, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be there. If it’s going to be brought back, it will be brought in with a sunset clause—five years, three years—and so the ultimate guarantee for democracy is that the parliamentarians that actually enact the statute will have a chance to reassess as to whether it should continue, and for me that’s more than satisfactory.

Pillay: I don’t think it’s a good idea, because I don’t think they’re effective. What are they really adding? Conspiracy to commit a crime has always been a crime in Canada, we’ve always had the measures in the Criminal Code to arrest somebody if they’re about to commit a crime. The point is, will this even be effective in counterterrorism? These investigative hearings, you can’t even use the information you get from the person to prosecute them, you can only use it with respect to perjury. Secondly, the minute you identify somebody and put them into the investigative hearing process, if they really are a conspirator you’ve just tipped off all the co-conspirators so they now know that they’re being investigated. So it’s not effective.

Coyne: I think the fact that it hasn’t been used shows that it hasn’t been abused either. There was great fear that this was going to be used across the board and there would be mass abuses of civil rights. The case you make that in most circumstances this wouldn’t be terribly effective is right, but that’s the point: this is held in reserve for specific circumstances. When you’re dealing with the potential for somebody slaughtering thousands of people at one go, it doesn’t upset me to have something in reserve that, if you have evidence that they’re about the pull the trigger on it, you can swoop in and prevent it. And I think it hasn’t been abused, it’s something useful to have in reserve.

Van Dusen: What should we be prepared to give up in the discussion between civil rights and security? Are we seeing likely—how do I frame this?—as bad as it’s going to get, or as good as it’s going to get? Or should we be prepared to give up more in the name of security?

Pillay: Well, I think that when we start saying that we don’t believe anymore in the presumption of innocence, or we don’t believe in having to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then we have to start asking ourselves, what kind of a society are we living in? I don’t really see it as, what do we have to give up? I say, how do we want to live and what do we stand for, what do we believe in?

Wells: The real test would be if there were—God forbid—another or a series of other attacks on North American soil, or in Western Europe, what the reaction would be. Because every time there’s even been a hint or a scare, like the liquids in the airplanes, the tendency has been to impose more draconian security. I do believe that the security that I went through this morning on my way to St. John’s was laughably excessive, but I don’t know that I would dare, as an elected official, to be the one to throttle it back, because you’ve always got it in the back of your mind.

Van Dusen: What should we expect over the next decade? What role will our laws take, and what role with our lawmakers take?

Pillay: I think that we have to be very realistic about what threats exist, and I think at the same time we also have to be realistic about what we risk morphing into if we don’t remain vigilant with respect to certain safeguards. Ten years from now we may be in a landlocked continent where we can’t travel because we have a security perimeter, and people are on lists because they may have talked to someone or known someone. If we’re looking at the next 10 years, we have to pay much heed to [questions like], what do we think about equality, what do we think about presumption of innocence? Do we still care about avoiding wrongfully convicting innocent people, and how do we want to live? How do we want to move about, who do we want to be?

Fatah: I think a lot depends on whether the Arab Spring will turn into a nuclear winter or something of that sort. If the Arab Spring turns out to be al-Qaeda’s foundation in Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhood getting power in Egypt, our next 10 years are going to be worse than the previous.

Wells: Tarek’s observations about some of the disturbing trends in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring is a really good argument for Western governments to not get bored and move on. We got bored and moved on from Afghanistan at the beginning of the 1990s. It didn’t work out too well. As for what happens at home, the values that we need to make sure that we keep promoting at home include economic opportunity and equality before the law and among your neighbours. As long as this is a place where a young Muslim kid has a shot in the world, it’s going to probably work out better than, say, the suburbs of Paris. In 2007 I went up to a suburb of Paris called Villiers-le-Bel after there was a lesser outburst of the riots that had taken place a couple of years earlier there. This is a largely Muslim suburb of Paris. Long-term unemployment was rampant, it was ethnically fairly homogenous. There wasn’t a lot of mixing of native-born and immigrant society there, and the only sign of government activity that I could find in that suburb was a massive new police station being built. The message to young Muslims in that neighbourhood was, “You are not getting out of here and we have our eye on you.” We have to make sure that that is not the message that is sent to young folks of any background in Canada. And as it happens, the OECD has singled out Canadian schools as being among the best in the world for ensuring that no matter what background you come from, and no matter what socio-economic level you come from, rich or poor, you have a better chance of succeeding in school than in most countries. That’s a Canadian asset that we must never give up.

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