© 2001 Karen Selick
Go Ahead, Make Our
Be Very Afraid of Anti-Terrorist Bill
Day An edited version of this article first appeared in the October 30, 2001 issue of The National Post.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Be Very Afraid of Anti-Terrorist Bill

Can there be anyone in Canada who believes that the actions of the hijackers as they plotted their September 11 massacre, the actions of the anthrax terrorists as they milled their lethal powders, and the actions of anyone who helped with these deadly preparations, would not have been illegal in Canada if they had been performed here?  If so, it can only be because they’ve never read the Criminal Code.  

The Code recognizes that preparing to commit a crime can also constitute a crime, and that someone other than the actual trigger-man might also be guilty.  It outlaws attempts to commit crimes, conspiracies, counselling others to commit crimes, and aiding and abetting. 

Simply put, the fact that the terrorists succeeded in perpetrating their horrifying crimes is not attributable to any lack of laws outlawing those activities.  Had their intentions and preparatory activities been known, they and any co-conspirators could certainly have been charged under the law as it existed on September 11.

Indeed, although precise figures are scarce, reports indicate Canada has since September 11 arrested about a dozen people suspected of terrorist connections, even though no new enabling legislation has yet been passed.  The United States had reportedly arrested about 800, even before its new anti-terrorist law was passed on October 26. 

So what purpose does Bill C-36, Canada’s proposed Anti-terrorism Act, serve?  Well, for starters, it adds overkill, giving old activities that were already illegal their own additional terrorism-related labels, just in case anyone had any doubts.  Maybe the government considers this necessary to reassure a jittery populace that it is really “doing something” about terrorism.

But in seeking to ensure that no borderline crime escapes from the net, the 175-page bill casts its net very broadly.  The result, I fear, is that many innocent people will be ensnared by its provisions, subjecting them to their own personal regimen of state-sponsored terror, while dissipating law-enforcement resources that could otherwise be used to protect us from genuine threats. 

Under the bill, “terrorist group” will include any person or group who is placed on a list, at the discretion of the federal cabinet.  Once you are so designated, all of your property is effectively frozen.  Sure, you can eventually challenge your inclusion on the list before a judge—but where will you get the money to hire a lawyer?

Suppose you belong to a group that espouses a political cause.  You and the vast majority of other members may abhor violence and desire only peaceful change.  But if a single unbalanced member perpetrates an act of terrorism in the misguided pursuit of your common cause, the bill provides that you and your entire group can be tarred with the terrorist brush merely by reason of “acting…in association with” this individual, whether you endorsed--or even knew of--his terrorist activities or not.  

Other troubling aspects of Bill C-36 are its increased police powers.  RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli told the House of Commons Justice Committee that new powers are necessary because “traditional investigative tools are inadequate.”  But consider the contrast between the complete vacuum of information about the imminent terrorist attacks that seems to have existed on September 10, and the gushing geyser of information that has spewed forth ever since.  All of these details have emerged under the supposedly inadequate traditional investigative methods.  We’ve seen Mohammed Attah on the eve of his crime on videotape at the Walmart, the bank, the gas station, and so on.

It’s not that we were unable, under previous law, to keep an eye on these people.  It’s that we didn’t know who to keep an eye on.  And if additional police powers, as opposed to reallocating police manpower, are supposed to change all that, the only logical conclusion one can reach is that it’s because the police intend to use those powers to spy even more pervasively on all of us, in a vast fishing expedition, while they try to figure out who they’d like to charge with what.

Observe also that over the past century, the power of the state has already grown by leaps and bounds.  It now takes half our incomes.  We have to notify it immediately whenever we move, if we merely possess a driver’s licence. We now live with wiretapping laws, drug laws, money laundering laws and increasing censorship masquerading as human rights laws.  Meanwhile, the evils of crime, vice, terrorism and social discord that all these measures were supposed to protect us from have grown apace.  When is the payoff from giving the state ever more control over our lives ever going to come?  Indeed, a plausible argument can be made—although I don’t have space here—that the rampant growth of the state has been the cause of, not the cure for, many of our current problems. 

While no-one should make light of the destruction and suffering that terrorists have caused, the fact remains that this harm is utterly dwarfed by the destruction and suffering that too-powerful states have caused.  The greatest massacres of history—millions upon millions of people in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, in Maoist China and elsewhere—have been perpetrated not by “free-lance” terrorists, but by those who controlled the machinery of the state in all its awesome power.

The fact that the Canadian government is rejecting even the feeble comfort of a sunset clause on this intrusive bill should cause citizens great concern. The government has discussed enacting this type of guilt-by-association, asset-freezing legislation before—most recently in connection with biker gangs.  If it achieves this goal on the coat-tails of the current emergency, it should come as no surprise that it won’t be willing to retrench later. 

We now have before us a perfect example of what can happen when power and command over resources become concentrated in the hands of a very few.  When Osama bin Laden was on “our” side during the Soviet-Afghan war, we gave him weapons and money and called him a freedom-fighter.  Today we have others asking for power and money, again in the name of freedom.  We’ve been burned once.  We should be much more careful this time. 


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March 3, 2003