Governments and terrorism

I was listening to CBC’s Writers and Company earlier today while driving down the QEW towards Niagara.  This particular programme dealt with Shakespeare’s works and the differences in the plays he wrote during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.   The interviewee, James Shapiro, did an amazing job of situating some of his plays in contemporary society to illustrate how the Bard matched his plots to events in his day.

The one remark that struck me was the evocation of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – during the so-called second phase of Shakepeare’s dramatic output (he wrote King Lear that year) – where a group of disgruntled Catholics tried to blow up the Parliament of King James I.  In Shapiro’s view this was a planned act of terrorism.  It is pretty hard to disagree with that assessment.

But it was what he said next that intrigued me. According to Shapiro, because the plot was foiled and hence nothing happened, the court of King James went to extraordinary efforts to make a big deal out of the incident to convince the English public that the threat was significant.  Through the use of torture and other methods, the court was able to tie a whole group of traitors to the crime and captivate the nation.

This reminds me of the publicity and reaction surrounding the Toronto 18 back in 2006.  To refresh your memories, CSIS and RCMP investigations uncovered a plan to set off three truck bombs in downtown Toronto and at a military base.  In the end, 11 men were tried and all were found guilty or pleaded guilty.  This terrorism plot was by far the largest on home soil in Canadian history and remains so to this day.

See the parallels?  Just as back in 1605, the Canadian caper 400 years later did not kill anyone or cause any damage.   The two plots, had they  been successful, would have killed and maimed hundreds.  And just as King James made examples of Guy Fawkes and his cohort, so the Canadian government sacrificed 18 young men on the altar of hype and fearmongering.

Except that last part is not true.

At the time of the arrests of the terrorists I was bemused to see some media claim that the planned attack was a government fabrication.  Whether it was a scheme by CSIS to get more money or a ploy by the Harper government to look tough on terrorism, a portion of the Canadian public was not convinced that the threat was real.  As the Crown stayed charges on seven of the accused, the perception that this was not the crime of the century only grew.  Throw in a few human agents and the hoi polloi were crying “Entrapment”!  I still come across people a decade later who think the whole thing was fake.

The reality is that the plot was real.  That the group was not the “A-team” is irrelevant.  Despite a lack of high level of sophistication and technique, a bunch of guys from the GTA were able to acquire 3 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, build and test a detonator, choose targets and get to the verge of action.  This was not a “made in Ottawa” ruse.

The public has to acknowledge that there is a danger out there.  A relatively small number of Canadians radicalise to violence and seek to carry out terrorist attacks here or abroad.  There are enough people out there with real plans.   More will come.  Trust me, our agencies are busy as it is and don’t have to make stuff up.

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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