Damned if we do

I read an irritating op-ed piece in Al Jazeera the other day.  The author, Antonia Zerbiasis, claims that the Canadian government is now verging on totalitarianism for arresting people for “thinking of doing things” (see article here).  The piece was written in response to the arrest of 10 young Montrealers suspected of seeking to join IS.

Let me get this straight.  Our police agencies arrest 10 people AT AN AIRPORT whom they believe are intent of leaving the country to break the law.  I think we can assume that the police had some information and due cause and that the arrests were not random in nature.

Besides, what were the youth doing at Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport probably with airline tickets in possession?  Were they on a high school visual arts assignment?  Does airport terminal food appeal to them?  Did they take the wrong Metro?

In addition, reports suggest that a family called the police, who then took action.  In other words, one family saw something – probably signs that their child was radicalizing – and was concerned enough to seek police intervention to save that child.  The fact that the call was made is significant in itself: it probably took a lot to do that.

In Ms. Zerbiasis’ opinion, since the kids were only “thinking” about maybe violent things, the state overreacted by arresting them.


Imagine the following interaction:

” Sorry ma’am but since your son was only “thinking” about terrorism, we decided to respect his rights and allowed him to get on a plane.  We’re really sorry that he has since died and that the chances you’ll get his body back are nil.  But he died sticking to his beliefs.  Have a nice day and thank you for placing your trust in the SPVM (Montreal police)”.

Dealing with radicalization is complicated.  Each case is different.  Detecting it isn’t a slam dunk either.  People don’t radicalize in a heartbeat.  They usually go through a process that is purely mental at first, before violent behavior comes out.  Acting too soon, when it is largely psychological, could infringe on Charter rights.

But these youth appear to have been well beyond “thinking” about it.  Do people merely “thinking” about extremism make plans to travel and buy tickets?  Unlikely.

So governments and law enforcement are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  Make arrests or undertake an intervention and they are being overbearing.  Allow people to leave and they are accused of not doing enough to save lives.

Put yourself in the parents’ shoes.  Would you rather have your kid under a peace bond, or have his passport seized, or dead outside of Aleppo?

I know what choice I’d make.

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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