When fear reigns

posted on September 18, 2010 | in Category War on Terror | PermaLink

by Mohammed Adam Source: The Vancouver Sun URL: [link] Date: September 11, 2010 September 11 was the day the world changed. Fear followed, and many lived scared. As one observer points out, 'Fear can lead to scares and scares can lead to witchhunts'

OTTAWA — On a rainy Ottawa day, a man meets a friend at a popular shawarma restaurant for lunch. Another travels to his Middle-Eastern homeland to seek a wife. A routine check at a border crossing reveals a tourist map of the capital in a truck. A young volunteer travels to the Indian sub-continent to work for a charity. These mundane activities happen every day, and nobody pays any particular attention. However, since Sept. 11, 2001, when fear of terrorism swept the country, lunch at the Mango Café in Alta Vista suddenly took on a sinister meaning for Maher Arar, for example. Overnight, Muslim men fell under collective suspicion. As Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin and others found out, when people are scared, things can quickly turn nasty. A federal judge is preparing to deliver his ruling this fall in the case of Algerian immigrant Mohamed Harkat, 42, who came to Canada in 1995 as a refugee, but was arrested in 2002 under a security certificate on suspicion of being an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. It remains to be seen how society will judge him, but one thing is very certain: Shaking the terrorist label is difficult indeed.Social scientists call a widespread fear based on a belief that something threatens the fabric of society a moral panic. History is full of the result of such panics from the witch-hunts of Renaissance Europe to the Red Scare of the 1950s. The latest moral panic is the fear of Muslims and Middle-Eastern-looking men as potential terrorists, experts say.

"A terrorist act against innocents generates fear and loathing. The authorities over-react, politicians stoke the fear and loathing with hyperbole and legislation," says Larry Black, professor emeritus and director of the Centre for Research on Canada-Russia Relations at Laurentian University in Sudbury.

"Easy-to-see-targets then become victims, and innocents on the other side now suffer. Arar, Almalki and the others are evidence enough of that."

"Fears can lead to scares and scares can lead to witch-hunts. One of the things that happens when people are scared is that they tend to care less about the principles that have been part of their tradition for a long time," says Evan Fox-Decent, a professor who specializes in immigration and human rights law at Montreal's McGill University.

"What they care about is security, and if somebody else's rights are not respected or may be infringed, it is generally a very easy trade-off to make."

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The 9/11 attacks hardened attitudes in the U.S., Canada and most of the world. Terrorists had pierced the U.S. security shield to bring fear to our doorsteps, and few had any qualms about giving security agencies carte blanche to go after the perpetrators.

"We panicked, we overreacted ... some things we did destroyed our own value system," Richard Clarke, security and counter-terrorism adviser to U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told a television interviewer.

"Things changed dramatically on Sept. 11. It was a time of fear and panic and all the rules basically went out the door," adds Paul Copeland, a Toronto national security lawyer and special advocate for Harkat.

Under tremendous pressure, security agencies felt they had no margin of error. Consequently, experts say, the merest whiff of suspicion would pull an individual into the dragnet. Information, however questionable or speculative, was acted upon.

The belief was that society was better off with terror suspects behind bars than on the streets.

"The idea basically was that we are in the crosshairs of al-Qaeda and if we have suspicion that somebody is up to no good, we should be able to basically shoot first and ask questions later," Fox-Decent says. As well, before the attacks, Western intelligence agencies had few experts who spoke the language of the extremists, or their history, culture and practices. After 9/11 tracking terrorists was handed to a group of RCMP officers who had no counter-terrorism experience.

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Historians and political scientists see some parallels between post-9/11 and other fearful times such as the Second World War, when Japanese-Canadians and Italian-Canadians were sent to internment camps. In the 1950s, Soviet agents were waging the Cold War inside the West. Their very real presence spawned a scare about communists under every bed. Along the way innocent lives were destroyed.

Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman jumped to his death on a Cairo street in 1957 after repeated accusations by U.S. authorities that he was a Communist and Soviet spy. It didn't matter that Canadian authorities didn't think he was a traitor.

In 1948, the British Columbia law society rejected Gordon Martin's application to the bar, citing his communist sympathies, and the courts agreed. Martin became a TV repairman.

Along with the hunt for communists, the RCMP tried to purge the public service of homosexuals because the government believed they were vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents. Carleton University's Patrizia Gentile and Gary Kinsman of Laurentian University, who chronicled The Canadian War on Queers, say about 9,000 people were victimized in the campaign.

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Despite judicial inquiries that have found the security agencies wanting in a number of investigations, the question remains whether Canadian security agencies can fight terrorism any other way.

Their work requires them to anticipate trouble and nip it in the bud, and that often necessarily involves making assumptions that may not pass a legal test. Some within the security establishment wonder how they can be effective when they are hamstrung by impediments.

The frustration boiled over last year, when CSIS director Richard Fadden launched a withering attack on a "loose partnership of single-issue NGOs, advocacy journalists and lawyers" whom he accused of creating positive images of accused terrorists. He was particularly scathing about "tender-hearted profiles" of terror suspects and their portrayal as "quasi-folk heroes" by journalists.

"Our elites tend to avert their eyes, and media tend to give what little coverage they grant (on national security) to groups that seem to feel that our charm and the Maple Leaf on our backpacks are all we need to protect us," Fadden said scornfully.

"Almost any attempt to fight terrorism by the government is portrayed as an overreaction or an assault on liberty."

University of Toronto national security and terrorism expert Wesley Wark acknowledges that security agencies have a tough job, but says normal checks in a democratic society are not impediments. To properly protect the country, he says the agencies should be able to distinguish "genuine threats."

"I don't underestimate the challenges for security and intelligence agencies, but the standard they have to try and reach is truthfulness and knowledge," Wark told the Harkat hearing.

"They can't afford to be wasting their resources and their time on chasing wild hares and wild theories and fears that don't have substance. If they do that they're not going to uncover and deal with the genuine threats they face."

Copeland says "evil people are floating around the world." And no one, he says, should underestimate the task facing national security agencies. Ottawa's Momin Khawaja, who was convicted of terrorism for involvement in a British plot to plant bombs in the United Kingdom, the Toronto 18, and perhaps the recent Project Samossa arrests in Ottawa, attest to the real danger facing Canada.

"What the Toronto 18 were planning would have been horrific if they had actually carried it out," Copeland says.

However, he maintains that it is precisely because the danger is real that the security agencies must get it right. He says there's no excuse for complicity in the torture of the innocent, and there should be no whitewashing the enormous harm done to people who have been wrongly accused of being terrorists. They are marked for life.

"It is a nightmare to be branded a terrorist. You never lose it. You never recover from it," he says.

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