Conservatives losing the public with 'anti-terrorism' gimmickry

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is wasting no time in framing his opponents as softies on public safety and anti-terrorism. His latest promise to restrict people from travelling to areas "under the governance of terrorists" is an obvious case in point, writes Steven Zhou.

Proposal to restrict travel does little to keep Canadians safe, writes Steven Zhou

A map showing ISIS zones is displayed as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign stop in Ottawa on Aug. 9. Harper says if the Conservatives are re-elected this fall, his party would impose banned travel zones to combat terrorism. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As the New Democrats and the Liberals take aim at Stephen Harper over issues of civil liberties, the prime minister is wasting no time in framing his two main opponents as softies on public safety and anti-terrorism. The latest promise from Harper to restrict people from travelling to areas "under the governance of terrorists" is an obvious case in point.

The economy is verging on a recession and youth unemployment hovers around at 10 per cent, so naturally, the Conservative leader plays the terrorism card by telling Canadians he's going to fix "terrorist tourism."

Like the controversial Senate report released last month, proposing that Muslim clerics be licensed by the state, the prime minister's latest promise sounds more like a political gimmick than a serious security proposal.

Much has been said about the obvious threats to civil liberties posed by the entire Harper national security agenda, but people seem to be ignoring the fact that outlandish proposals like licensing clerics and restricting travel actually do little to keep Canadians safe.

Setting aside the overrated nature of the homegrown terrorism threat, there is in fact a consensus among local leaders and security experts that decreasing radicalization would require a good degree of trust between communities and the state.

Detrimental to mitigating radicalization

Out-of-touch proposals like unilaterally designating certain countries around the world as "no-go" zones are, in addition to laws like Bill C-51, detrimental to mitigating homegrown terrorism and radicalization.

Law enforcement needs access to certain areas of interest within communities in order to address serious cases of possible radicalization. They won't get this kind of access or co-operation from community members or leaders if the government's reputation is one of prejudicial divisiveness and demonization.

As the Harper Conservatives continue to portray the international terrorist threat in cartoonish terms, they themselves become caricatures — the product of inadvertent self-parody.

The truth is that 130 Canadians are suspected to be abroad as "bad actors," but 80 have now returned to face prosecution at home. The problem is already being dealt with, rendering Harper's proposal to restrict Canadians' travel rather redundant.

But the vast majority of the Conservatives' terrorism laws are quite redundant since Canada already has legislation in place to deal with terrorists as criminals. In fact, Bill C-51 itself also contains wording that makes it an offence to travel for the purposes of terrorism, making the travel restriction proposal doubly redundant.

A relative term

Furthermore, "terrorist" can be a pretty relative term at times. The Harper Conservatives have said more than once that the Iranian government is a state sponsor of terrorism. Does that mean no Canadian will be allowed to visit Iran? How about Pakistan and Nigeria, countries that contain swathes of territory controlled by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and Boko Haram, respectively? Somalia and Yemen also fall under this category.

Conservative spokesperson Stephen Lecce has noted that certain exemptions will be made for people to travel to such areas (eg. aid workers, journalists, diplomats, etc.), but that's hardly much comfort in the grand scheme of things.

Anyone going to a designated no-go area will be presumed guilty until proven innocent (fast becoming the Canadian way of law and order under the Harper regime). The Crown wouldn't even have to prove that the suspected individual was travelling in order to join up with terrorists, just that he or she was caught going to a banned place. The dangers to personal freedoms here are obvious.

By continuously proposing unnecessary new laws to address "the international jihadi movement," the Tories get to play the terrorism card in public again and again.

Frankly, this kind of political gimmickry has long failed to stand up to serious scrutiny, probably contributing to the fact that the majority of surveyed Canadians are telling pollsters that they want the Conservative incumbents to lose the election this fall. After years of shameless self-portrayal as Canada's best chance against swarming Islamic terrorists, the Conservatives' strategy is likely past the point of being useful.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist and writer.


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