A guest post by Gwynne Dyer on May 11, 2015. Shared here with explicit written permission of the author.
Left-wing, right-wing, it makes no difference. Almost every elected government, confronted with even the slightest “terrorist threat”, responds by attacking the civil liberties of its own citizens. And the citizens often cheer them on.
Last week, the French government passed a new bill through the National Assembly that vastly expanded the powers of the country’s intelligence services. French intelligence agents will now be free to plant cameras and recording devices in private homes and cars, intercept phone conversations without judicial oversight, even install “keylogger” devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.
It was allegedly a response to the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks that killed 17 people in Paris last January, but the security services were just waiting for an excuse. Indeed, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the law was needed to give a legal framework to intelligence agents who are already pursuing some of these practices illegally. France, he explained, has never “had to face this kind of terrorism in our history.”
Meanwhile, over in Canada, Defence Minister Jason Kenney was justifying a similar over-reaction in by saying that “the threat of terrorism has never been greater.” Really?
In all the time since 9/11 there had never been a terrorist attack in Canada until last October, when two Canadian soldiers were killed in separate incidents. Both were low-tech, “lone wolf” attacks by Canadian converts to Islam – in one, the murder weapon was simply a car – but the public (or at least the media) got so excited that the government felt the need to “do something.”
The Anti-Terror Act, which has just passed the Canadian House of Commons, gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the right to make “preventive” arrests in Canada. It lets police arrest and detain individuals without charge for up to seven days. The bill’s prohibitions on speech that “promotes or glorifies terrorism” are so broad and vague that any extreme political opinion can be criminalised.
In short, it’s the usual smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing measures that politicians throw out when they want to look tough. It won’t do much to stop terrorist attacks, but that doesn’t matter as the threat is pretty small anyway.
France has 65,000,000 million people, and it lost 17 of them to terrorism in the past year. Canada has 36,000,000 million people, and it has lost precisely 2 of them to domestic terrorism in the past twenty years. In what way were those lives more valuable than those of the hundreds of people who die each year in France and Canada from less newsworthy crimes of violence like murder?
Why haven’t they changed the law to stop more of those crimes? If you monitored everybody’s electronic communications all the time, and bugged their homes and cars, you could probably cut the murder rate in half. The price, of course, would be that you have to live in an Orwellian surveillance state, and we’re not willing to pay that price. Not just to cut the murder rate.
The cruel truth is that we put a higher value on the lives of those killed in terrorist attacks because they get more publicity. That’s why, in an opinion poll last month, nearly two-thirds of French people were in favor of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism – and the French parliament passed the new security law by 438 votes to 86.
The government in France is Socialist, but the opposition centre-right supported the new law too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in Canada is seriously right-wing, but the centre-right Liberals were equally unwilling to risk unpopularity by opposing it. On the other hand, the centre-left New Democrats and the Greens voted against, and the vote was closer in Canada: 183 to 96.
And the Canadian public, at the start 82 percent in favour of the new law, had a rethink during the course of the debate. By the time the Anti-Terror Act was passed in the House of Commons, 56 percent of Canadians were against it. Among Canadians between 18 and 34 years old, fully three-quarters opposed it.
Maybe the difference just reflects the smaller scale of the attacks in Canada, but full credit to Canadians for getting past the knee-jerk phase of their response to terrorism. Nevertheless, their parliament still passed the bill. So should we chalk all this up as two more victories for the terrorists, with an honourable mention for the Canadian public?
No, not really. Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and all the other jihadis don’t give a damn if Western democracies mutilate their own freedoms, as it doesn’t significantly restrict their own operations. The only real winners are the security forces.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.