Kenney vs. Amnesty: the downside of neighbourhood watches

Further to my column on Jason Kenney’s exchange with Amnesty International:

I was reminded, while writing the column, of a really disturbing moment in the aftermath of 9/11. Shortly after the horrible day, the FBI released photos of the 19 dead perpetrators of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And a day or so later, the Toronto Sun ran a Page 1 story asserting that some of the murderers had recently been kicking around Toronto. Here’s the top of that story, from Sept. 28, 2001:

Living in Fear: Apartment Tenants Recognize Hijackers, Fear Reprisals

As police sifted through evidence, residents of a Toronto apartment complex were stricken with fear over claims at least two of the suspected suicide hijackers had roamed their halls in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Some tenants in a Jameson Ave. complex suggested they saw at least two men in their building — Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi — who were later accused of hijacking two of the U.S. airliners in the Sept. 11 attacks….

“Many of the residents have been picking out the same man when they looked at the photos of the (suspected) hijackers,” said Donna Dunphy, the superintendent of the Jameson Ave. building — one of four sites raided late Wednesday by police collecting information on a suspected terrorist cell.

“People are petrified,” Dunphy said. “The tenants are scared” there could be reprisals.

There was, of course, not a spot of truth to the story.

The FBI later pieced together every step the 9/11 plotters had made for years before the attacks. Not a one of them had set foot in Canada. There were, and certainly still are, other members of terrorist cells in Canada. But all the good people of Jameson Ave. who were sure they’d seen Atta and Al-Shehhi were simply wrong. They saw somebody else and thought it was Atta and Al-Shehhi. It’s a good thing the 9/11 plotters were dead, because I get nervous thinking about what might have happened if a neighbourhood watcher believed himself, incorrectly, to have cornered one of them.

So Amnesty International is not out to lunch when they warn the government to be careful about publishing names and faces. People can get these things wrong.

Why doesn’t that invalidate what the government’s up to? Because it seems to me, and to people I interviewed who know more about this than I do, that the government has been careful. It’s selected fewer than a third of the country’s outstanding S. 35 inadmissibility cases. Many of those cases involve men who’ve admitted to wrongdoing in their refugee hearings, and/or men who’ve failed multiple judicial or quasi-judicial (IRB) hearings. Their paper trail is a mile deep.

But the neighbours could still get it wrong, right? Absolutely. Publishing names and photos shouldn’t be routine, and this government’s apparent temptation to make it routine will lead to trouble some day. But neither is the government calling on neighbours to take a baseball bat to these alleged fugitives if it finds them. It’s asking them to call the police, who’ll take it from there, and dump anyone they apprehend back into a due-process mill with which many of them will already be familiar.

I don’t think any of this is cut and dried. I did a radio interview this morning with a host who wanted me to be more full-throated in my defence of Kenney and the government. Sorry, can’t oblige. These are judgment calls, not team sports.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.