When city hall becomes a terrorist target

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on January 15, 2018

There are many reasons why citizens dislike City Hall.  You might have a beef over the taxes you pay. Perhaps you are not happy with snow removal or garbage collection.  You may even have a bone to pick with a parking ticket you received.  These are all petty issues and not ones you would normally associate with terrorism.  I cannot imagine a disgruntled Ottawan strapping a suicide vest on and heading to Marion Dewar Plaza to protest a council vote on rezoning.  And yet the manager of security and emergency management at Ottawa City Hall is seriously considering putting up security bollards to as an ‘anti-terror move’.  City Hall boffins have carried out a security assessment and determined that “we have to do a lot more” to ensure the safety and security of patrons.

Is this really necessary?

I recall that in the wake of 9/11 hundreds if not thousands of grants and disbursements were handed out like candy in the US candy including, I kid you not, the Keene (New Hampshire) Pumpkin Festival, to protect against future terrorist attacks.  We have not had the same silly requests in our country to the best of my knowledge, nor the sheer number of requests.  Then again, 9/11 did not happen here.

But all this leads to a very relevant question: is the Ottawa City Hall plan to put up barriers a good one and is it justified to use tax dollars in this way?  The answer, as always, is complicated.

There is no doubt that there has been of late a scourge of terrorist attacks against public spaces using weapons that most of us park in our driveways – yes, cars.  Whether we are talking about London or Barcelona or Nice or Edmonton the terrorist flavour of the day appears to be a race to the bottom of simplicity.  Why hijack a plane and fly it into a building, which takes a certain skill level after all, when you can drive a car into a Canada Day crowd with no prior training?  So, yes, this is the current trend although it will be very interesting to see if it continues (that is the thing with trends – they end).

My initial views were that this is a gross over-exaggeration to a very low terrorist threat level.  I know that ITAC – the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre – ranks the overall threat at medium (halfway on its five-point scale) but it is hard to argue that the actual threat, as measured by investigations and arrests, is really that high.  It is certainly real but probably significantly lower than that of most of our allies in the West.  Is Ottawa City Hall really likely to be the target of a vehicular attack?  Probably not.

In the best case scenario you bolster security where your intelligence tells you to do so. Unfortunately, intelligence is never perfect, even in Canada which has some stellar intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  You can never be 100% confident that you have all eventualities covered and citizens do not want to hear ‘but we didn’t know’ from their protectors in the wake of a successful plot.

In this light,then, I have come to accept that this may be a necessary move on the part of those that run City Hall.  There are conditions though that should be met before this plan is implemented.  Whatever design those in charge of security settle on must be both unobtrusive and esthetically pleasing (or neutral) while at the same time retain its functionality.  It has to be cost effective – did anyone do a cost-benefit analysis of threat vs. investment in new structures?  And security measures cannot ratchet up in the future, as they often do, to include serious-looking men with automatic weapons patrolling the site on a regular basis.  We cannot allow our fear of terrorism to force us to accept a securitised state.

I recognise that much has changed over the last two decades and that terrorism has morphed from a phenomenon that only happens ‘over there’ to one that has invaded our every day lives.  It is highly unlikely that we will ever get back to the way things were.  We can, however, temper our responses to terrorism in a measured, mature way and not give in to panic and despair.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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