Thursday, June 08, 2006

As the List Grows

Ok, so we don’t know. With each day that passes since the 17 suspects were arrested over the weekend, it seems that potential targets for terrorist attacks are being added. First, it was the Parliament building in Ottawa, but then that target was allegedly dropped due to the terrorists’ seeming unfamiliarity with Ottawa. What, the building’s not big enough? And it’s not like the capital city is the size of Tokyo or Mexico City. Unless the suspects were mental midgets (which, according to at least one source, they might have been, in which case the threat probably wasn’t as real as it would seem), figuring out Ottawa shouldn’t have been too daunting a challenge. Anyone’s who’s visited the city for a day or two would know that.

Then it was the CN Tower, followed by the CSIS office in Toronto, the CBC building across the street, the Toronto Stock Exchange, and an unspecified military base. We heard about truck or car bombs (called vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIED, in the trade). It then emerged that one of the suspects had enrolled in flight school, indicating, perhaps, that a plan for an attack from the air was in the offing, only to drop sometime later.

What will tomorrow bring? Add the Toronto Subway—no, cross that one out; it’s already been used in a previous scare—the University of Toronto, Tim Horton’s or any other landmark, and we’ll have covered all the possibilities. Each new possible target that’s being leaked out to the media has sentimental value for the population that swallows the news with a sigh of relief, as if Armageddon itself had been averted. As the authorities provide potentialities one at a time, we all react in different ways, depending on our relationship with those locations. For me, the CBC building has a special meaning, for my father, a CBC employee, was among those who helped build it (the studios inside, to be more precise). I also happen to know a few people who work in it. The second potential target that makes me pause is the building in which the CSIS regional office is located. As a former employee of that organization, I’ve visited it—spend two days in there, in fact—and know quite a few people there. For others, it'll be the CN Tower, the TSX, and so on.

There are two forces at work here, and both have the potential to awaken the imagination and unduly exacerbate fear within the public: first, wittingly or not, the authorities are adding fuel to the fire by enumerating a list of potential targets. Maybe they know but find it to their advantage to keep everybody guessing. After all, who stands to gain from a heightened state of fear, of doom averted? The very cash-hungry agencies who are charged with protecting the security of Canadians. Or maybe they don’t know and are firing all over the place with the hope that they might hit a bird eventually. Regardless, this brings us to the second force at play: the media. They’ll feed on, interpret, exacerbate and diffuse all the precious little information they’re getting from the authorities—and absent such information, they’ll turn to so-called security “experts” (who also recognize a lucrative opportunity when they see one) and seize upon every rumor that’s bound to emerge. This is currently big news in Toronto—in Canada, even—and the occasion is sure not to be missed. We're making the news; we're being noticed. CNN is in Toronto; we're on Reuters, the BBC, and perhaps even Al-Jazeera!

As I’ve already mentioned, calm and a cool temper are in order, both on the part of the media and the public. We cannot allow fear, a fear based on uncorroborated and perhaps self-serving information, to spread like brush fire. Let us avoid making this non-event, averted or altogether imagined, become something more than it should.

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