Politics·Analysis

Justin Trudeau's turn to lead in a time of terror

The Trudeau government wants to rewrite Bill C-51 and increase parliamentary oversight of national security agencies. But the Prime Minister also might talk about terrorism differently.

The Trudeau government says it will do things differently; maybe it should speak differently too

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters as he takes part in a news conference to mark the end of the parliamentary session on June 22 in Ottawa. In the wake of the Aaron Driver case, how should a prime minister speak about acts of terror? (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Two days after a madman killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, then Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg addressed a memorial service at the Oslo cathedral.

"We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values," said Stoltenberg, now the secretary general of NATO. "Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivité."

Norway was subsequently noted for its calm response in the face of terror.

Justin Trudeau is an admirer of Stoltenberg's remarks that day and it influenced his response to the attack on Parliament Hill in October 2014.

"This act was meant to make us forget who we are. Instead, we must always remember," Trudeau said then.

"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."

As he takes his turn now at leading a major democracy in a time of global terror, here are the values he might be expected to uphold. And how he talks about acts of terror is critical.

The immediate challenge of C-51

In the near term, and in the wake of Aaron Driver, Trudeau's challenge is C-51. 

No provision of the bill has yet been linked to a pivotal aspect of the Driver case, so the Liberal commitment to rewrite certain elements of the Harper government's contentious anti-terror bill should not necessarily be affected by recent events.

But, as seen this week, the Conservatives are eager to criticize the Liberal government, fairly or otherwise, for eliminating "tools" that law enforcement agencies might use to combat terrorism. Any move to reduce or limit anti-terror provisions creates some amount of risk that some subsequent attack will be linked to the change.

Even if no direct link can be drawn, the mere impression of a government reining in anti-terror laws might be exploited. 

A year after Stoltenberg was hailed for his resilient tone, he was castigated when an inquiry into the Brevik attack found fault with the government and police. A year later he was voted out of office.

Former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was initially commended for his response to a terrorist attack in his country in 2011. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

How we describe the threat

In addition to adjusting C-51, Trudeau has aligned his government with two other aspects that might distinguish it: greater review of national security operations via a parliamentary committee (more democracy?) and making Canada a centre for the study of de-radicalization (more humanity?).

In addition to doing things differently, Trudeau's words matter too.

Referring to the research of Louise Richardson, an Irish scholar, Dan Gardner argued in 2008's Risk that the terrorist seeks revenge, renown and reaction, only the first of which the terrorist can achieve on his or her own. Reaction is how the attacked society responds. Renown "depends mainly on how" governments and the media "describe the threat."

Renown, the thinking goes, bolsters the terrorist group's cause, elevating its status and allowing it to draw recruits.

Stephen Harper spoke of values on January 30, 2015 when he announced his government's plans to move forward with C-51. But he presaged such words with dire warnings.

"A great evil has been descending upon our world, an evil which has been growing more and more powerful: violent jihadism," Harper said. "Jihadi terrorism, as it is evolving, is one of the most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced."

Need to fight fear

As noted at the time, this contrasted sharply with the tone of the American administration. Indeed, a year later, Barack Obama declared that ISIS was not an existential threat to the United States.

"Their primary power, in addition to killing innocent lives, is to strike fear in our societies, to disrupt our societies," the president argued.

Indeed, fear might be what Obama wants to fight.

In his own remarks after the attack on Parliament Hill in 2014, Trudeau tried to undermine the idea of a great enemy.

"The individuals who committed these awful acts are not larger than life," he said. "They are not giants. They are certainly not martyrs. That is how they would like us to see them, but it is not what they are. Seeing them that way lets the fear they try to perpetuate grow."

And fear can lead to overreaction, of the sort that can betray our values. "Existential fear is the only reasonable explanation for America's toleration of torture after 9/11," according to Brian Michael Jenkins, another of the thinkers Gardner drew on.

(Note: Gardner has advised Trudeau's government, but not on the subject of terrorism.)

President Barack Obama has said that ISIS does not represent an "existential threat" to the United States. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) (Associated Press)

Not abandoning values

Terrorism's greatest threat to our society might be that it would cause us to abandon the values of openness, diversity, tolerance and rationality. And that it might seem worthy of grave terms and strident action.

But if the values of peace, order and good government are at stake, we might be mindful of epitomizing those ideals in how we consider, respond to and speak of terrorism. We might not be naive, but we might not perpetuate notions that we live in dangerous times or have reason to doubt our neighbours.

The politician might not coldly dismiss the risk of terrorism, but he might not promote the threat either.

And measured words might lead to measured actions.

If the state's powers need to be expanded or a citizen's rights engaged, such things might be done reluctantly and cautiously. The inevitable desire to respond with new and greater laws might be questioned.

Of course, what is at issue here — the highly publicized prospect of random violence and death — is fearsome. But if terror is what terrorism is meant to achieve, we might be mindful to avoid embracing it.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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