Our freedoms are casualties of war

  • March 11, 2007
One of the problems of war is that its casualties are not limited to combatants; they include what military strategists euphemistically call “collateral damage” inflicted by “friendly fire.”
In layman’s terms, that means unintended targets shot by people who are supposed to be on our side.

Another reality about war is that it is very difficult to limit its victims. But we all know that, and have seen it in the fiasco that is the “war on terror.” By declaring our challenge to terrorism a war, we accept that sometimes innocent people will get hurt.

Much of Canadian society — and huge portions of U.S. society — agreed that the proper response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was a “war on terror,” though a war that could go on for years, a war that features unconventional tactics and unfamiliar battlefields.

And we accepted limitations on our democratic freedoms — a casualty of the war that was deemed unavoidable in the fear and loathing that followed 9/11.

All of which brings us to the debate that unfolded in the House of Commons last week. The combined forces of the Opposition, led by Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, refused to give the Conservative government permission to extend two security provisions that were part of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001. Provision one gave authorities the power to arrest suspected terrorists without warrants and hold them in jail for up to 12 months without laying charges. The second created the possibility of “investigative hearings” to allow authorities to force suspected terrorists to testify about alleged plots.

These two provisions were thought by parliamentarians in 2001 to be offensive but necessary costs of the war on terrorism. However, knowing what extraordinary infractions of our charter rights they were, Parliament gave them a sunset clause so they would have to be reconsidered and renewed after five years.

Five years has passed, the reconsideration has occurred and today’s Parliament deems them unnecessary. This is both right and just. They violated our sense of human rights and should not have been left on the books unless an airtight case for their necessity could be made. No one made any such case. The measures were not used at all, in fact.

The vote to eliminate these measures was a small sign that we are regaining our sense of proportion over the true nature of terrorism. Our response should not be a war, with all that implies, but concerted, international police action within clear legal parametres. In fact, it has been good police work that has done the most to foil terrorist plots since 2001 — and military action that has done the most to foment more terrorism.

We still have work to do. Maher Arar revealed our own complicity in torture and evidence has arisen that he was not the only one. We have far to go to learn how to defeat terrorism without inflicting wounds on the innocent.

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