The IRA taught the British an all-important lesson: If you are fighting to defend your way of life, you must not give up your way of life, writes Michael Byers
Take a deep breath. Exhale. Relax. Last week, the police and security services arrested a group of men and boys who were conspiring to commit terrorism. Terrorism — commonly defined as any action intended to cause death or serious injury to civilians in order to intimidate a population or compel its government to act — is unquestionably a bad thing. The police and security services deserve our thanks. At the same time, it's important to maintain some perspective. The putative terrorists were amateurs. They'd been tracked for two years and only acquired the capacity to act when the authorities provided them with fertilizer. Their apparent leader spoke openly about his violent intent, in one instance to a Member of Parliament. The Hells Angels are infinitely more professional, and probably more dangerous. Apparently, the conspirators were inspired to violence by websites that celebrate the activities and ideology of Al Qaeda. This is a concern. Yet we should not forget that violence is constantly celebrated in our society — in music, on TV, on countless non-Islamic websites — and that the effects are played out every day, in our schools and on our streets through knife and gun crime. In any society, some small percentage of people will always feel aggrieved. A much smaller percentage will contemplate violence. Terrorism is a timeless phenomenon. Societies around the world have learned to reduce and manage the threat of terrorism. They have addressed the root causes of anger by adopting policies that foster inclusion and understanding, including through the right to vote in democratic elections and the provision of rights and procedures that guard against the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. They have developed means of policing and intelligence-gathering that are focused and efficient, that guard against violence without provoking more of it. They have learned, sometimes through a painful process of trial and error, that terrorism succeeds only if societies and governments allow themselves to be terrorized. The Irish Republican Army maintained a terrorist campaign against London for three decades, claiming more than 100 lives. In 1973 alone, 36 bombs were detonated in the British capital. Yet life went on, and the foundations of British democracy remained unshaken. I remember taking the Underground on Feb. 9, 1996, the day that a truck bomb exploded at Canary Wharf, killing two people and destroying a six-storey building. Yes, people were concerned. But they went to work the next day, their rights were not compromised, and people of Irish ancestry and adherents of Catholicism were not collectively blamed. The response to the suicide attacks last July 7 was similar, despite the fact that 52 people where killed and around 700 injured. I was in a village near London that day, and I remember my sister-in-law receiving a phone call from friends who, unable to find a train home after work, had repaired to a pub instead. Within six hours of the attacks, I received an e-mail confirming a lunch meeting a few days later — just blocks from one of the bombings. The IRA taught the British an all-important lesson: If you're fighting to defend your way of life, you mustn't give up your way of life. Our American neighbours, in contrast, had little experience with terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Their response was excessive and counterproductive. They detained U.S. citizens without charge or access to lawyers, produced legal opinions justifying torture, and invaded a sovereign country on the basis of trumped-up evidence of terrorist links and weapons of mass destruction. Just last month, George W. Bush admitted that the abuse of detainees has cost his country dearly. He also expressed regret at his own choice of language — including the memorable "wanted dead or alive" — in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In Canada, we've a history of overreaction also. In 1970, Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in response to what he described as "an armed, revolutionary movement that is bent on destroying the very basis of our freedom." But only one person died during the "October Crisis," and most of the 450 people detained under martial law were released without charge. Overreactions have consequences. They distract attention from other concerns. For instance, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore maintains that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. Almost two years ago, Tony Blair warned that climate change could be "so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence." When we obsess about terrorism, we lose sight of other, perhaps more serious dangers. Governments are happy to face the threat of terrorists, or at least amateur ones. When people are frightened, when they're terrorized, they'll tolerate the accumulation of government power, and the corresponding loss of individual rights. Terrorism suffocates debate about which measures are best suited to address the problem: the easy options of more police, more wiretaps, more soldiers and guns, as opposed to more difficult options designed to address root causes, to educate and engage those who might be moved to violence. There is no denying that terrorism is a serious issue. But the arrests last week changed very little. Our society still faces a diversity of complex challenges. A sense of perspective is required, along with cool heads.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005).