Should thinking about violence be punished?

One of the greatest challenges a society has to face with respect to the delicate balance between privacy and freedom of thought and national security has to do with when organs of the state are allowed to take an interest in the activities of its citizens when those activities are believed to constitute a threat to public safety.

I have been wanting to comment on this poser for a while but was waiting for the opportune time to do so.  Well, that time has come in the wake of a story that arose this week out of France.  Not surprisingly in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, French security services are engaged in a national crackdown to find anyone who had anything to do with the terrorist strikes as well as disrupting anyone else who may have similar designs.

As part of this wave of arrests and disruptive action, French authorities have decided to ban 57 workers from Charles de Gaulle airport on account of their “radicalisation”  (see story here).  Note that there does not appear to be any definitive sign of criminal action at this point.  Just the fact that the men are “radicalised”.

Is this right?  Are the French not taking extreme action over the mere presence of radical thought?  Is radical thought worthy of heavy-handed tactics?

Given my background in intelligence and my specialisation in violent radicalisation, I know where the French are coming from.  The ideology of these men is completely consistent with members of AQ and IS and other terrorist groups who are responsible for heinous acts over the past 2 decades.  This ideology is hateful and intolerant and not only condones violence but demands it.  So,what is the problem?  In view of what I worked on for a decade and a half I am not sure there is one.

But I understand the nervousness of greater society.  The French are punishing citizens whose views are distasteful and extreme and consistent with violence, but no violent act is foreseen – at least not yet.  Since we are a good distance away from a Minority Report world where “pre-cogs” provide our law enforcement agencies with info on future crimes well before they happen, are we taking preemptive action too early (well before the criminal threshold is reached)?  Good question.

Here is the real dilemma.  We expect organisations like CSIS and the RCMP here in Canada to prevent acts of terrorism and we label any shortcoming as an “intelligence failure”.  And if, heaven forbid, either agency investigates an individual who never engages in terrorist activity we yell “Orwell”!  So what should our agencies do?

First and foremost they have to act within the law (check – both organisations do).  Secondly they have to respect Charter values (check – both organisations do).  Unfortunately the line between violent thought (non criminal) and violent action (criminal) is both thin and short (in a temporal sense).  If our spies and cops have to wait until the eve of an attack to act, more terrorists will succeed.  The earlier they launch an investigation the greater the success of interdiction.  But how early?

CSIS and the RCMP have different mandates: one is intelligence the other law enforcement.  But a further difference lies in when each agency can legally engage in gathering information.  CSIS needs reasonable grounds to suspect: the RCMP needs reasonable grounds to believe.  The distinction is subtle but important.  It essentially means that CSIS has the legal ability to investigate pre-criminal behaviour (cue the outrage).  Furthermore, intelligence is not evidence and CSIS holdings do not make it to court.

It has been my experience that intelligence agencies like CSIS act judiciously and carefully and execute their important mandates well while safeguarding Canadians’ rights.  I am sure that many will disagree with me.  I think the track record speaks for itself and I will continue to defend the Service for what it does, even if some believe – erroneously in my view – that it tramples on constitutionally protected activity.

I am sure the debate will go on.



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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