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Harper's anti-terror bill is a real barn burner

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Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigour has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Brand-new anti-terrorism legislation is coming to keep us all safe. True, we'll get a secret police with the power to break the law and our freedom of expression will contract. But it's an election year and Stephen Harper has found his political wedge.

We're facing a grisly enemy overseas (our troops over there are supposedly not "facing" it, but their mission doesn't creep, it sprints). At home we’ve had a couple of murderers promoted to "terrorists" because they identified with that enemy. A few more terrorist wannabes have been intercepted and either tried or are awaiting trial. But this is under current laws.

Harper and his government, meanwhile, are having a field day. If ISIS fires on our troops, says our prime minister, "we’ll kill them." Teenagers in their parents' basements beaking off stupidly on Twitter or Facebook? "We can't tolerate this," he says. Jail them.

Will the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) get additional oversight to go with its expanded powers? "We are not interested in creating needless red tape," says Conservative MP Roxanne James.

That last needs a closer look. A chunk of oversight already disappeared when the government abolished the Office of the Inspector General of CSIS in 2012. The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), its other oversight body, was at one point headed up by Arthur Porter, a person with no relevant expertise whatsoever, now facing extradition and trial for fraud.

CSIS was castigated by SIRC just last year for "lack of candour" in one case and by a federal court for a "breach of the duty of candour" in another -- lying, in a word, to its oversight body and to a judge. And this happened without expanded powers permitting CSIS to break the law and "disrupt" activities deemed a threat. Can SIRC rein in the new CSIS? We have a right to be skeptical.

CSIS was brought into being precisely because the RCMP Security Service had gone hog-wild, infiltrating "subversive" groups, barn-burning and burglarizing. We seem to have come nearly full circle.

C-51 will make it an offence to advocate or promote "the commission of terrorism offences in general." The Criminal Code definition of "terrorism" (Section 83.1) refers to acts that are already illegal, but committed for "a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause."

Derail a train and kill people, you're a murderer; shout "Allahu Akbar" at the same time, and you're a terrorist instead. Such semantics don’t mean much in practical terms, of course, but they help to create a climate of fear. The important thing is that the perps, however labelled, be caught and punished, or, one hopes, stopped beforehand -- as several have already been.

But the new law will extend further than that. Besides giving broad new powers to a lightly supervised CSIS, what is "terrorism in general?" An overly robust defence of suffering civilians in Gaza? (Its government, Hamas, has been listed as a terrorist organization by Canada.) Suggesting that the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka had a right to fight back against murderous oppression by the Sinhalese majority? (The organization that took on that role, the Tamil Tigers, is also on the list.) A favourable review of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, perhaps?

"Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety," Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, "deserve neither liberty nor safety." But Stephen Harper is no Benjamin Franklin: "This is really what we get from our opposition, that every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow our freedoms are threatened."

Well, they are. But two of our soldiers were murdered right here at home, and ISIS is like something out of Grand Guignol. People are understandably frightened. What's needed, however, for that very reason is "a leadership of frankness and vigour" -- not a government that cynically surfs a panic wave for political ends.

If we have nothing to fear but fear itself, we should all be plenty terrified by now.

(This article previously appeared in the Toronto Star on February 9)

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