All the violence gets confusing. This week, it’s been either urban youth violence (Paris, Toronto) or terror mayhem (Amman plus the usual places). On Wednesday, CBC Newsworld ran an all-day special, Gangs and Guns, while promo’ing that night’s fifth estate exposé of crappy Canadian airport security. The two types involved entirely different orders of disorder, but tell that to your battered psyche. They start blending.

Some, such as former National Post columnist Mark Steyn, don’t leave the associating to your unconscious. In the Chicago Sun-Times, he equated young French rioters, not just with Muslim terrorists “carrying on a low-level intifada,” but with the Moors who invaded Europe (“doing a [not] bad impression of the Muslim armies of 13 centuries ago”).

Yet lots of those kids are fourth-generation French, or from black, sub-Saharan Africa, and wear the baggy clothes of American hip-hop. If there’s a relevant category to invoke (for France or Toronto), it’s surely race, not religion.

But this kind of blurring can lead to fuzzy thinking about answers. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy demanded arrests, thus defining the problem as crime. Even in Toronto this week, new minimum sentences for gun crimes were announced — though ordinary Torontonians seemed less punitive. By almost two to one, they said the answer to youth violence is social programs, not more cops. Their point: Give those kids something to do.

Or take airport security. “It’s a joke,” a guard told the fifth estate. Well, of course it is, trying to catch one suicidal zealot among a zillion flyers. It’s like trying to end bank robbery by screening everyone who enters a bank. The real key is olde-tyme police investigation: informers, rewards, intimidation, legwork. Catch the bombers at their end, not at the airport. The worst deception has been calling the whole scourge a war rather than a bloody international crime wave. It directs attention toward exactly the wrong tactics.

So you end up dealing with the basically social problem of youth unrest, here or in France, as if it’s a criminal matter to be handled by cops; and viewing the basically criminal issue of terror, which should be handled by cops (in the sense of intelligence agencies, special forces etc.) as if it’s a problem in power politics, and handed to the military. You get the police ineffectively deployed in the ‘burbs, and the army futilely bogged down in Iraq. The costs are stupendous, the problems only worsen and the absence of clear-eyed thinking is embarrassing.

Modern virtues: I’ll be in Ottawa, Monday, to receive a media award from the Canadian Islamic Congress and to make some remarks. It’s a kind of exercise in respectful disagreement, my favourite contemporary virtue in these testy times. I wrote a column opposed to the CIC position on sharia tribunals, and secularism generally, just before responding to their kind offer.

Respectful disagreement is pretty much what I try to do as a writer. I spoke at a Fraser Institute forum that was tilted toward the tobacco lobby, though many good people said I should not go and legitimate it. I just don’t believe in refusing to talk. I accepted Conrad Black’s invitation to tea, and we had an agreeably disagreeable time. It’s largely what I do at The Globe and Mail. A reader recently asked if there’s significance that this column runs on the recto to the editorials.

Last year the CIC’s leader said some chilling and, in my view, mistaken things on TV about terrorism. He apologized and offered to resign though his board didn’t accept. But terror is the fateful vortex of our era and though everyone thinks its meaning is clear, the clear definitions often clash starkly. So I think debate on the topic is essential — and far better than cutting it off.

Besides, it’s vital for a democracy’s health, to have representative bodies such as the CIC that can then vigorously disagree with each other. The point isn’t whether they’re agreeable, it’s that they exist. I doubt it’s a mechayah (a pleasure) as we say in Hebrew, to be an Islamic organization in the West right now, but thank God, or whoever, that they are there.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.