The first Canadian anti-terror trials are finally under way, in Ottawa and Brampton. It’s about time. What can we learn, so far?

Well, it isn’t all about “global Islamic jihad” (Christie Blatchford’s term). Boys will also be boys. They go camping, bond and play at combat. They’re full of bravado and imitate lingo that seems hip (“nigga,” “bro”), but they’re also dogmatic and idealistic. I knew people like that in the United States in the 1960s, some of whom joined the Weather Underground, built bombs and went to prison for it. They, too, felt part of a global movement with a destiny, and not one was a Muslim, although some black Muslims were among their heroes.

When people, even young idealistic ones, cross the line into criminality, how should they be dealt with? More or less as those currently charged are: through routine police work such as surveillance, infiltration, intimidation and, above all, generous payouts (informer Mubin Shaikh got $300,000 from the RCMP). It tends to work. Followed by legal prosecution. It’s all routine. None of it even required our new anti-terror act, although it’s being used. The wider the danger, the wider the police effort required. What isn’t needed are special measures or a global counterjihad.

Take the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, the last Western prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. A McClatchy Newspapers investigation found that Gitmo, a unique institution for the counterjihad, was “churning out militants” among its many “wrongly jailed.” In other words, it generates terror. That’s one reason all the other Western governments repatriated their people. Bring Omar Khadr home, try him if there are charges and let the normal system work. He wrote in a letter last week that he wants to be useful and help people. Is that implausible? Many of the Weather Underground served time, then did laudable work in education or government. Now they’re starting to retire and sitting around the pool in Arizona. It’s what often happens to the young — they grow out of the crazy bits.

Or take the ur-case of the counterjihad: 9/11. What if it had been treated as a regular (though unique and international) police matter? The perps would have been charged, hunted, arrested and tried. There would have been no generalized, basically undefinable war on terror and no invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq. Hence no Abu Ghraib creating vast recruitment for more terror and no Canadian troops occupying Kandahar.

What is the effect of our forces there as part of the counterjihad? They hand over prisoners, some surely innocent, like those in Guantanamo, to be tortured in Kandahar prison. When these break out, as they did two weeks ago, they have a special grudge against Canadians. Or they witness Afghan soldiers, whom they are there to train, having “man sex Thursdays,” when they rape local boys and, in one case reported by a Canadian soldier, leave the “bowels and lower intestines falling out” of the boy’s body. These stories travel the world and have a special impact in Canada among young, volatile Muslims. Some of them yearn to go and train in the region and return to do damage. The sinister regime that’s motivating them isn’t the Taliban or al-Qaeda, it’s the foreign policy of our own government. I know we’re supposed to be there to help Afghan women and bring the nation democracy, but we could do that in other worthy places without having to occupy them and collude in torture and sodomy, rebounding back on us.

Stick to simple stuff: crimes and criminals. Skip empty abstractions like clash of civilizations or war on terror that may end up creating what you say you fear. I’m not keen on the propaganda circus around the arrests that led to the trials, nor the long detentions and attempts to hide evidence. But the trials themselves are almost refreshing. Just shut up and go to court.


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.