Ottawa shooting: Putting security before liberty

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The Ottawa murder of a Canadian soldier last Wednesday brought a sudden outpouring of sentiments as large numbers of people felt his loss.

The senseless tragedy brought crowds out to gather at cenotaphs across Canada to honour the memory of Corporal Nathan Frank Cirillo. In bad times people want to come together, experience solidarity, what it means to be a part of something bigger than a family, or a neighbourhood.

The narrative surrounding the murderer is a murky one. Can one mentally disturbed individual with a rifle be linked to international terrorism? Efforts have been made by the RCMP to suggest the assassination was politically motivated.

The Conservatives passed Bill S-7 promoting anti-terrorism, and the ongoing threat to Canadians from terrorists is hardly a new theme for government ministers.

A new bill to toughen security laws will be brought forward this week. Parliament will debate whether Canadians can be arrested if they are deemed to represent a threat to national security, in what looks to be an attack on protection of personal security from arbitrary justice.

How about linking the murder to Islam? The national security lobby calls for increasing vigilance against international terrorists, all of whom seem to be Muslim.

"Standing on guard for thee" implies Canadians honour each other, not that the government tries to root out the enemy within, especially when "within" means ... inside the Canadian Islamic community.

Respecting each other is a political virtue, something to do because it is the right way to live. Being Canadian is not about how we look, what we wear, or what religion we practice.

Sadly, the Muslim community needs more than the respect it should be entitled to as citizens of Canada. Today it needs to be defended against prejudice and hate, an offshoot of the appeal to strengthen national security.

Many Canadians will want to hear political leaders affirm that civic liberties need to be better protected, that no government should be able to subvert justice in the name of national security, especially without any evidence that Canadians are more in danger today than a week ago.

Human rights are those civic virtues considered so necessary to justice as to be enforceable by law. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was made part of the Constitution so that governments would have to abide by it.

Careful observance of the rights and freedoms of Canadians is not optional for governments. The Charter cannot be set aside just because ministers decide something, or someone represents a threat to security.

Citizens are able to call governments to account through the justice system when the Charter is violated. In recent years the courts have protected Canadians from a federal government that is unwilling to be guided by the Charter when it prepares legislation.

While the Conservatives want to depict themselves as standing up for Canadians by strengthening security, the evidence suggest otherwise. The government has been surprisingly negligent despite its security discourse.

Seeing a man with a rifle force his way past security screams out that the doors of the House of Commons have not been properly guarded. The current Speaker of the House, a Conservative, bears responsibility for the lax security, along with his counterpart in the Senate.

Conflicts exist among the House of Commons and Senate staff, the RCMP, and the Security Service (CSIS) over how best to protect Parliament from security threats. What does it say about government competence when it cannot sort out internal disputes over who should do what?

The Conservatives are proud of killing the long-gun registry. As parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg has suggested, the Quebec portion of the registry could still be intact because the Quebec government is suing to restore it at the provincial level. What remains may prove useful in explaining how a mentally disturbed individual with a criminal record and no right to bear arms managed to procure a deadly weapon.

The get-tough crowd recoils in disgust when protection of civil liberties gets thrown in their faces. Let the debate be joined. The never-ending war on terror (an abstract noun) launched by an American president has inspired the Conservatives and their supporters. That way lies fear as the source of public policy decisions.

A just society eschews fear, embraces reason and compassion, and demands patience from those who would build it. Those Canadians who gathered at cenotaphs to honour a citizen soldier deserve no less.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Xiaozhuli/flickr

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