How should we respond to terrorism?

I apologise  for leading off with a statement of the obvious, but terrorism is real.  We in Canada were reminded of that this week when the RCMP and its partners thwarted an attack by Aaron Driver in Strathroy.  Regardless of whether Mr. Driver’s attempt was amateurish or not, whether he was an “A”-team member or a “B”-lister, he could have done serious damage had authorities not foiled his designs.

It is natural to react with nervousness and uncertainty when we hear of events like this.  Even if these incidents are rare in Canada – and I think there are reasons for this – we are still shocked and a little afraid when an attack is averted at the 11th hour.  What if he had not been detected?  What if he had made it to a place where there were lots of people?  What if he had succeeded in killing and maiming dozens?  The “what-ifs” go on and on.

After our immediate reaction, we tend to go into critical review mode.  Why did an attacker get that close?  Why was he not being watched 24/7?  How was he able to get his hands on explosives despite strict peace bond conditions?  Why did it take the FBI to tip us off?

All valid questions and ones that need answers (even if the answers strike some as unsatisfactory).  It is my experience in the wake of a terrorist incident, whether one that was disrupted (the vast majority) or one that succeeded (the tiny minority) our security and law enforcement agencies perform detailed post mortems to see what was done well, what was not and what can be done better in the future.  Just as terrorists adapt and change, so do the organisations tasked with keeping us safe.  We are blessed with professional, capable services and should be grateful for their dedication.  They get it right most of the time and learn from those rare occasions on which they do not.

At the same time, overlapping these short-term responses is a much more important one: the absolute need to stay calm and speak in measured tones.  The hour after an attack is not the time for rhetoric and fearmongering.  It is the time for reminding ourselves who we are, what we stand for and what we have built as a nation.  We need to reiterate that our system of government and society is so superior to the offerings of the terrorists.  We need to state clearly that while we will fight to protect our investment we will do so in ways that do not adopt the methods of the terrorists and undermine what we are.  Doing so plays into their hands.  It bolsters their narrative.  We cannot do this.

In this light, what I have heard from Prime Minister Trudeau is bang on (although he said this after the 2011 attack in Norway it still resonates):

  • “We are a proud democracy, a welcoming and peaceful nation. We are a country of open arms, open minds and open hearts. We are a nation of fairness, justice and the rule of law. We will not be intimidated into changing that, by anybody… Staying true to our values in a time of crisis will make us an example to the world.”

That is what we need to hear in a time of crisis, not “let’s build a wall”, or “let’s stop immigration”, or “let’s bomb ____ (fill in the blank)”.  While some of us lose our heads in fear and panic our leaders must keep theirs.  Seeing your head of state lose his composure only undermines confidence.  Fear begets fear.

It  may seem counterintuitive sometimes but we really need to tell ourselves, repeatedly, that the terrorist threat is not an existential one.  No terrorist group is ever going to succeed in replacing what we are.  The threat is real and  it must be confronted, but the way we respond is as important, if not more important, than anything else.  If we stoop to the level of the terrorist, we become him.  I do not think we want to do that.

There is much to discuss in the coming weeks and months.  The future of C-51. The use of peace bonds for terrorism suspects.  Whether the RCMP and CSIS have enough resources.  The debate will be arduous and divisive. We need to have that conversation in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance and keep level heads about us.

We can deal with terrorism and remain who we are.   To do so otherwise would be a tragedy.




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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