Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dealing with Terrorism in North America

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Author’s note: Following the Boston shooting in April 2013, I wrote about how North America would continue to face the threat of domestic terrorism. Yesterday, Canada’s Parliament was assailed by what is described as a “lone wolf” gunman. This was the second attack in a week, and Canada has lost two soldiers to the violence. The gunmen in both attacks, who were killed by authorities, are purported to be recent converts to Islam, though any ties to ISIS remain unclear at this point. Their Canadian passports were recently rescinded. Yet, despite these tragic events, Canada must continue to cherish its freedoms while remaining highly vigilant about security matters. My original blog post from April 30, 2013 continues below.

The last couple of weeks have shown that terrorism, or the threat of it, is not just something we read about in other parts of the world. Occasionally, we recall the events of 9-11, but soon it will be twelve years since that horrible day. However, the tragic ending of the Boston Marathon reminded us in vivid terms how vulnerable a free and open society is to the threat of terrorism, whether domestic or imported. Hence, the balance between freedom to exercise our rights in society and the need for security and safety from harm is once again at the center of public policy.

A few days after the two Boston bombers were apprehended (with one killed in the process), Canadian authorities arrested two alleged plotters in Montreal and Toronto—supposedly linked to an Al Qaeda cell in Iran—and accused them of planning to derail a Via Rail passenger train with an explosive device.  Although the Boston bombings might appear, for the moment, to have been the work of a domestic “lone wolf” operation, the Canadian incident might have a direct international link. Meanwhile, the Canadian Parliament adopted a law giving authorities greater preventive powers in dealing with future threats of terrorism.

There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous and unpredictable world where different kinds of fanaticism continue to grow and lead to actions aimed at disrupting lives and destabilizing political regimes. Let us be clear: successive governments in North America have never been soft on terrorism, but our citizenry is especially strong on freedom. How can we ensure that this remains the course of action on both sides of the border?  The answer to this question has repercussions on the economic, social and political life of North America.

When I served as delegate general in New York on behalf of the Québec government, we knew that cooperation between authorities on security matters was a necessary precondition for enhanced commercial activity.  Shortly after 9-11, there were immediate actions by U.S. authorities that actually led to a “thickening of the border” and, consequently, reduced trade activity.

Over the years, governments on both sides of the Canadian border have adopted improved security measures due to greater technological advances, resulting in more efficient commercial interactions.  Freedom and security were able to coexist.  The hope is that recent events in Boston, Montreal and Toronto will not short-circuit these, nor the recently announced Obama-Harper initiative for a trade and security perimeter in North America.  If anything, it is even more imperative that we stay the course.

The concern remains that when security measures reduce our freedoms, the terrorists win.  But greater security measures are necessary, even if they create some inconvenience. Enhanced airport security and greater police surveillance of large crowds at events are an acceptable price to pay for greater safety so we can exercise those very freedoms.

This being said, the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings has resulted in the decision to try the accused terrorist according to the civil justice system.  The same will occur in Canada.  This is good news.  It clearly sends the message that, although our system of government cannot completely prevent future threats or attacks, our democracies have endured because they are based on principles, values and, ultimately, the rule of law.

I believe that freedom and the sacred rule of law must never be secondary to security measures.  This is why we must continue to remain vigilant when authorities argue for greater tools to combat terrorism and we must not waver in using the civil justice system to deal with those accused of terrorism.  It is our freedoms and the principles and values that underlie them that make us ultimately stronger to deal with the threat of terrorism—and to triumph in the face of it.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Rule of Law, Terrorism
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