Stopping terror or stopping crime – robbing Peter to pay Paul

Life is all about making choices, whether this applies at the level of the individual or the state.  Presumably both types of decisions are aimed at contributing to the personal or common good, and both are constrained by resources, financial or otherwise.  Decisions have consequences since electing one path means rejecting another one or several other possibilities.

In a world of unlimited resources we could avoid making choices and simply do “all of the above”.  The real world is, alas, not like that so we are forced to settle for one outcome on the basis of what we believe to be right (or expedient, or palatable or acceptable or easy to sell or… the rationales are varied).

This conundrum is especially true when it comes to state programmes.  In a country like Canada where the population expects the government to play an active role across society, the state apparatus is forced to choose where to put limited money and people, after careful study and consultation one would hope.

But what if there are two problems equally in need of attention?  What is a government to do?  Some administrations can just hire more staff and print more money to address all the issues at hand, but history teaches us that this cannot be maintained indefinitely.

One pressing issue today, in Canada at least, is the question on where to concentrate our police forces – preventing and solving crime or preventing terrorism (the same dilemma does not exist for organisations such as CSIS, which do not have criminal responsibilities, although CSIS has had to re-allot assets away from classic counter intelligence and towards counter terrorism).  Note that terrorism is a crime under the Canadian Criminal Code (section 83.1), which should render this difference moot, although it is a special type of crime as we shall see.

According to a recent article in Macleans, the RCMP in Surrey are having a tough time dealing with an upsurge in gun violence in Surrey, a city just south of Vancouver.  The municipality is on a pace to hit 100 shootings this year, despite the addition of 100 RCMP officers to help with the scourge.  The majority of the violence seems to be linked to local gangs and the drug trade.

Complicating matters is a decision made in the wake of the October 2014 terrorist attacks in Ottawa and Montreal to shift hundreds of officers in the RCMP from organised crime to national security and terrorism.  This move has had a major impact on the Force’s ability to investigate incidents such as those happening in Surrey.  After all, there are only so many Mounties to go around.

But can we blame the RCMP or the government for this change?  Not really, as the 2014 terrorist acts and the news that hundreds of Canadians have elected to become “foreign fighters” with groups like Islamic State have forced the government’s hand.  Canadian citizens see terrorism – justifiably or not – as a major threat and expect their elected officials to do their utmost to prevent it.  Hence the transfer of police officers.

And yet the violence of the sort seen in Surrey is orders of magnitude greater than terrorism is or will likely ever be in this country.  If decision making were 100% logical, we would put many more bodies on serious crime than terrorism.   Two people have died in Canada since 9/11 in acts of violent extremism and while I have no idea how many have died in ordinary violence I am safe in the assumption that it is a whole lot more than two.

You see, that is why terrorism works.  Despite its infrequency, it has a disproportionate hold on our imaginations, and our fears.  A shooting death in Surrey does not garner the same attention, either from the media or around the water cooler, that a death from a terrorist does.  I am not arguing whether this is right or wrong – it just is.  And because our fear outstrips reality, we react emotionally.

We will continue to obsess about terrorists and terrorism for the foreseeable future and we will continue to move finite resources to combat it, implying that other equally (more?) serious problems will be depleted.  I am not arguing that we should not make sure we are doing enough on the terrorism front: 15 years at CSIS was sufficient to give me a solid grasp of the nature of the threat.   Still, do we need a national dialogue on what our law enforcement priorities should be?

In one way it seems funny that we are okay with an increasing number of deaths from gang violence as long as we stop terrorism.  Then again, humans are like that.

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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