TORONTO, Canada — Only the clueless would have been surprised by the Canadian government’s decision last week to introduce full body security scanners at major airports.
Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have been kowtowing to U.S. fear and insecurity since the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, keen to ease American delusions that Canada is soft on terror.
So, when the U.S. opted for full body scanners, Ottawa was quick to fall in line, despite concerns about invasion of privacy. If the Obama administration had opted for colonoscopies, it’s a good bet the Canadian government would have gone for those, too.
To be fair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is still mulling over the U.S. decision to target passengers from 13 largely Muslim countries, plus Cuba, for enhanced searches. Canada is, in reality and by law, a multicultural nation. That makes profiling politically and legally problematic. Besides, if need be, it can be done without official pronouncements.
If this hesitation fuels American concerns, rest assured that Ottawa is anything but weak at the knees. In fact, it has opened the door to books being prohibited as part of carry on luggage.
After the underwear bomber’s botched attempt to down an American passenger plane on Christmas Day, the government department responsible for aviation, Transport Canada, issued a list of 13 items passengers on U.S.-bound flights could bring on planes. Books were not on the list.
People noticed and complained. A government official was reassuring: Of course books would be allowed, he said. But when an updated list came out last week, it included medication, laptops, crutches, cameras and coats — but still no books. A Transport Canada official said security screeners would use “common sense” to decide whether passengers would be allowed to bring on items not on the list.
Books now seem subject to the discretion of security officials. We can imagine the questioning: “War and Peace? Hmm, the title sounds fishy. And it’s thick as a brick; it could take out several passengers — not on this plane, lady. The Catcher in the Rye? Isn’t that the one that’s been creating homegrown rebels for decades? Forget about it.”
It was clear from the start that the Christmas Day near-tragedy was a stunning intelligence failure: A young man on a U.S. security watch list pays cash for a plane ticket in Nigeria and travels to Detroit, via Amsterdam, with an underwear bomb and no checked luggage — after his father warned U.S. embassy officials of his strange behavior.
Yet airlines and passengers paid the price: Hundreds of thousands suffered through gridlock and canceled flights as airports tightened already tight security with pat downs and meticulous searches. The terrorists could not have expected more chaos and panic if their plan had succeeded.
Security crackdowns are easier than national discussions on the role America’s Middle East policy plays in increasing the pool of potential terrorists. Yet we’ve seen this film before: Ban sharp objects like box cutters and terrorists use shoe bombs; scan shoes and they use liquid explosives; ban liquids and they shove bombs down their underwear; implement full-body scanners and … stay tuned.
In Europe, where people understand that terrorism was around centuries before 9/11, the reaction is strikingly different.
When suicide bombers blew up 52 commuters in the London subway in 2005, Londoners were back riding the trains and going about their lives the next day. Calm defiance was the general mood.
After the bombings, British prime ministers — first Tony Blair and later Gordon Brown — tried to extend the amount of time terror suspects can be detained without charge, from 14 days to as much as 90 days. But politicians defeated the proposals, eventually settling on 28 days.
British politicians have learned some lessons from the shameful “dirty tricks” their security forces used to fight the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s: Fundamental principles of democracy, such as habeas corpus, must not be undermined in the name of fighting terrorism. John Major, a former British prime minister, who once was the target of an IRA bomb, put it this way: “A free and open society is worth a certain amount of risk.”
A common terrorist strategy is to push the state into using increasingly repressive methods to combat them. The idea is to reveal what terrorists consider is the state’s true, fascist face, thereby revolting its citizens and weakening its legitimacy.
Al Qaeda has used a version of that strategy, and the U.S. has been eager to oblige. The Afghan War, the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, rendition to torture, interrogation through torture — all these policies have been used by Al Qaeda and its affiliates as propaganda about America’s true nature, and as powerful recruiting tools. U.S. President Barack Obama has taken steps to change some of these policies, but it’s unclear how far he will go.
Canada hasn’t been immune to this lowering of democratic principles. In 2002, it’s national police force, the RCMP, participated in the U.S. rendition to torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was wrongly suspected of terror links. And now, even books are suspect. At what point do we start wondering if the terrorists are winning?