Terrorism vs. Civil Liberties

Allan Gregg explores the social impact of the War On Terror

The respected pollster and political pundit Allan Gregg stopped by StFX on Nov 3 to give a speech about an issue of great relevance to modern politics and the recent election: the impact that the War On Terror has on civil liberties. His visit was part of the Allan J. MacEachen Lecture Series. He argued that the Canadian government has been using the fear of terrorism to advance an agenda of increased government surveillance and powers like searches without warrants and detention without trial. He lays a great deal of blame on the Harper Government for this situation, but he takes issue with the laws the Liberals passed in the wake of 9/11 as well. This talk was given before the Paris attacks. 

The most recent government bill Gregg finds concerning is bill C-51. The bill has been highly controversial and subject to numerous protests across the country, including one in Antigonish last March. As he explains, “Bill C-51, which is facing a Charter challenge by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and has been criticized from quarters as varied as former Prime Ministers, academics, and the federal Privacy Commissioner, lowers the bar even further on the exercise of preventative detention and investigative hearings, and adds new weapons in the arsenal to be used in the War On Terror. Under this law, threatening national security will now include ‘interfering with the economic or financial stability of Canada’; a provision that some believe threatens legitimate protest. It also criminalizes speech that glorifies or promotes terrorism; a provision that some believe poses a direct threat to free speech. “

When describing the government’s response to terrorist threats he claimed that “this over-estimation of the risk of terrorism and harbouring a fear of something that is 100 times less likely to occur than drowning in your bathtub creates a climate of hysteria that breeds calls for an equally irrational response – one that is completely out of proportion to the size of the threat.” In Gregg’s view the War On Terror is “a war that could cause more threats to our freedoms than benefits to our safety, simply in the process of waging it”.

He justifies his view that terrorism is not an overwhelming threat by citing data from the US State Department about the known casualties due to terrorism around the world. According to Gregg this data shows that “60% of the attacks and 78% of the fatalities [due to terrorism] took place in five distant countries – Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. In addition, the average attack killed only 2.5 people. So we also know that ‘terrorism’ is being played out predominately in areas of serious civil conflict and in Muslim countries. We also know that with a few exceptions, these incidents take place on a small scale and pose no immediate or consequential threat to the West. In fact, in 2014 only 24 US citizens were killed in terrorist incidents, all of them overseas.” The Western nations that have been hardest hit since 9/11 are European ones.

In his talk, Gregg outlined his fear that radicalization seems to come from elements of society that feel marginalized, and a lack of interaction between different ethnic groups. He uses an example from his own life to illustrate how people from different ethnic groups are separated in Canadian cities, even highly multicultural ones, saying, “I mean, I’m as guilty as anyone; I don’t have any Chinese friends, I don’t have any black friends, I don’t have any Arab friends. I live in Toronto! Help me! When you get on the subway it’s like the United Nations. But I live in a tiny little gentrified, hipster neighbourhood.”

He contends that this separation of groups is problematic because it can lead to radicalization and also because politicians can exploit these tensions to win votes. As Gregg says, “A vicious cultural wheel therefore is turned by a political one. A fearful, divided citizenry fights off uncertainty by protecting its own turf; politicians exploit this division by choosing sides and offering simplistic solutions to address these fears; and the population seeks solace in the simplistic solutions. So instead of trying to bridge these differences through consensus and finding compromise based on reason, what we see all too often today is the politics of polarization, over-torqued partisanship and dogma.”