Tinkering Won't Fix Bill C-36

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Here is how William Safire, columnist for The New York Times, described U.S. President George W. Bush’s anti-terrorist decree last week:

“Misadvised by a frustrated and panic-stricken attorney general, a president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens. Intimidated by terrorists and inflamed by a passion for rough justice, we are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts.

“In his infamous emergency order, Bush admits to dismissing ‘the principles of law and the rules of evidence’ that undergird Americas system of justice. He seizes the power to circumvent the courts and set up his own drumhead tribunals — panels of officers who will sit in judgment of non-citizens who the president need only claim ‘reason to believe’ are members of terrorist organizations ...

“No longer does the judicial branch and an independent jury stand between the government and the accused. In lieu of those checks and balances central to our legal system, non-citizens face an executive that is now investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer or executioner. In an Orwellian twist, Bush’s order calls this Soviet-style abomination ‘a full and fair trial.’”

Strong words for the dean of American conservative commentators to apply to an arch-Conservative Republican President.

Canadian governments no longer execute people, but aside from that, the main difference between Bush’s decree and Attorney General Anne McLellan’s anti-terrorism bill is one of scope: Bush’s decree applies only to non-citizens; McLellan’s bill applies to us all.

In Canada, no commentator of Safire’s conservative pedigree has denounced McLellan’s panic-driven evisceration of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with anything approaching his vehemence.

Andrew Coyne, the columnist who most consistently tries to apply conservative principles, was quick to spot the bill’s intrusions on personal liberty, but he has since temporized, dithering uncharacteristically about the need to strike just the right balance between unfettered police power and the need to secure the nation against terror.

Limits on the state’s power to intrude on the liberty of its citizens are a mark of our civilization, one of the key ways we distinguish our way of life from that of the Taliban, or Apartheid, or the gulag. Where’s the evidence that massive abrogation of the rights of citizens are necessary or even helpful in the fight against terrorism?

It’s obvious, you say. The evildoers flew jet planes into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocents, and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from striking again.

Fine. But let’s not surrender freedom in the course of defending it. A nation stripped of habeas corpus, of the prohibition against self-incrimination, of the right to dissent, to judicial review, and to be tried in public before a jury of one’s peers, befits the vision of Osama bin Laden far better than the generations of democrats whose cumulative nation-building wisdom has been entrusted to our care.

Police in Canada are not exactly hobbled in their pursuit of suspects. In Halifax, police conduct a wholesale strip search of teenage girls and are not condemned but applauded by the Police Review Board. Dozens of suspects have been rounded up and detained since September without trial. With only mild hyperbole, critics refer to them as “the disappeared ones.”

With reasonable and probable grounds and the considered permission of a minor functionary, police can search your most private possessions and personal records. With the same grounds, and permission of a judge, they can eavesdrop on your most private conversations.

It’s easy to see how McLellan’s draconian measures might lead police to abuse the rights and privacy of innocent citizens; what’s not clear is how it might have prevented the September 11 attacks. Better intelligence might have prevented it. But there’s no evidence eviscerating civil liberties would have helped.

Like Pierre Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act and the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese descent, Bill C-36 is the stuff of panic. We will eventually regret it.

Some wiser heads already do. The privacy commissioner, the information commissioner, the former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the civilian committee that oversees that agency, the retired judge who oversees the military Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Bar Association, and the head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission have all condemned the bill’s intrusions as abusive or unnecessary.

Rarely has any proposed law provoked such a broad spectrum of opposition. In response, McLennan has tinkered with a few of the more odious provisions. Damn her tinkering. In the revered tradition of Tommy Douglas’s vote against the War Measures Act, MPs must summon the courage to reject this autocratic law.

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