"We are a target because of who we are and how we live, our society, our diversity and our values," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Ottawa a day after 17 individuals in Southern Ontario were arrested in what represents the country’s largest antiterrorist operation since Canada’s Antiterrorism Act came into effect in December 2001.
While it is much too soon to determine what those individuals’ ultimate intentions were, the nearly three tons of ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer) seized—three time as much as was used in the Oklahoma bombing in 1995—along with a cell phone that may have been utilized as a makeshift detonator, leave little doubt as to what may have been in the pipeline. But it will take days, if not weeks, before everything can be pieced together. For the moment, it’s all maybes, loose connections and theories, and much too soon to claim, as some officials already have, that an attack was foiled. As is usually the case in such situations, we have the end state in mind—a massive bombing somewhere in Canada, possibly in Toronto’s metropolitan area—which is inevitably inspired by the precedents set by the Madrid and London bombings. But the logical building of the case must operate from the bottom up; in other words, we cannot assume a conclusion and make the evidence fit that picture. That would be too easy. Far too often, the reality is orders of magnitude away from what things seem at first. In a just society like Canada’s, we cannot simply put intentions in a suspect’s head, or use a few items as evidence of those intentions. Time and hard work on the part of law enforcement and security officials will, hopefully, provide us with a clearer picture. But for the time being, let us use caution against reaching foregone conclusions.
That being said, there is no doubt that in the past few years Canada may have started showing up on certain radar screens. Despite my objections to the fear-mongering approach that some high-ranking officials in Canada’s security establishment have used since 9/11, I do believe that a terrorist attack on Canadian soil is not impossible. However, the Prime Minister’s reaction to the arrests in Toronto, to the effect that we are a target because of who and what we are, irresponsibly avoids looking at reality in the eye. President Bush used that line for a while, but surely few Americans believe the “we are blameless” line anymore.
It’s about time Canadians realized that there is a cost to engaging the world, and that we cannot deploy thousands of soldiers into Afghanistan, no matter how humanitarian we make this endeavor sound, and not expect a reaction. In the past months, Canadian forces in and around Kandahar have become increasingly proactive in their anti-Taliban operations. In the process, people are bound to get hurt. Eventually, someone—Taliban or otherwise—will get killed, and that someone will have a sibling, a friend, a cousin, in Canada. A would-be terrorist will not resort to violence because of some fundamental hatred for our system of values or our set of liberties; he or she will commit an attack because he feels that a wrong must be righted, a death avenged, or a point made. Canadians like to see themselves as peacekeepers, and we like to think that what our brave soldiers are accomplishing in Afghanistan is welcomed by all. But it is not. It is war-making, and there’s nothing clean about that. Bullets are being fired, people are being arrested, and errors are sometimes being made. This is not to say that we should not be in Afghanistan, or that Canada should shirk its responsibilities as a global player for fear that we’ll get a black eye somewhere down the road. But a responsible Prime Minister should do his utmost to educate the population and prepare it for the eventuality that the battle we brought to someone else’s shores may, at some point in the future, be visited upon ours. It’s time to be honest with ourselves: we are not innocent anymore, and the hatred that some individuals feel towards us is the result of our actions, not of who or what we are as citizens of an open, liberal democracy.