Saturday, February 20, 2010


*** I like this one better than its progenitor article. MS ***

In yesterday's National Post, Ottawa-area lawyer, scientist and professor Amir Attaran offered a thoughtful column lauding the success of Canada's criminal court system, backed by our able police forces, at detecting and arresting members of several Canadian terrorist groups, some of whom have now received lengthy prison terms. (Disclosure: Attaran and I have debated unrelated topics before, in a respectful and amicable fashion.) Attaran suggests in part that such successes prove that it is old fashioned police work that will defeat terror, and "those who operated outside the rules do not have a single guilty verdict to show for their troubles."

While Attaran offers worthy commentary, I posit that he misses the overall point. In a war on terrorism, victory cannot be measured in convictions alone.

Terrorism is special because it is not a crime conducted by individuals (alone or in groups) against other individuals. It is politically motivated violence intended to bring about some change in a government's policy, or simply to brutalize a population that holds beliefs that the attackers deem offensive, whether those beliefs reflect political ideology, economic theory or religious worship. Further complicating the matter is that in today's interconnected world, while the terrorist groups themselves may not be operating on behalf of any particular nation-state, their targets are often sovereign countries. I'd hate to be the NYPD officer driving a squad car through Taliban-controlled Kandahar keeping a watchful eye out for bin Laden and his boys, eager to make an arrest.

Attaran's arguments hold weight when dealing with home-grown domestic terrorists, who commit crimes before they ever have a chance to carry out their attacks. If diligent police work can catch them committing these lesser crimes and sentence them to long terms, like Attaran, I would celebrate this. But the good work of our police services and courts will be of little help preventing a terrorist cell outside our borders from striking us, nor would they be of any utility carrying out the bleaker but vitally necessary response to any terrorist attack — a crushing retaliatory response.

Further, Attaran's contention that the "more aggressive" counter-terror policies can be shown to be failures due to a failure to garner convictions ignores some entirely different ways of keeping score in the constant race against those who wish us harm. Success against terrorism can also be measured in the body counts of militants torn apart by our military power, and most important, in the lives of Canadians who might have perished in the absence of aggressive and assertive preemptive action against emerging terrorist threats. As many before me have pointed out, the fight against terrorism is hard to keep track of, since almost by default, the most successful operation by a government agency against a shadowy enemy will by design go unreported.

Once again, Attaran's championing of our long-standing legal principles is warranted, and the convictions he lauds are indeed worth celebrating as victories for the forces of civilization against those who seek our culture's downfall and replacement by a backwards-looking theocracy. But by establishing an arbitrary goalpost for victory and declaring his preferred option the victor by that measure, Attaran provides a perspective on the fight against terrorism akin to criticizing the Maple Leafs as an NHL franchise because they don't kick many field goals.

Effective policing, efficient courts and robust laws are an essential component in defeating terrorism at home. But powerful military forces operating under expansive rules of engagement, and well-funded intelligence agencies with wide-ranging mandates are just as important, if less palatable to many Canadians still pretending our former soft-power delusions still apply. Like Attaran, I cheer each time the courts hand out a lengthy sentence to a terrorist arrested by our clever Canadian police. But as a realist determined to see terrorism defeated by whatever means necessary, rather than those I find most palatable, I suggest that a jury, plus tanks, artillery, special forces units, spies and forceful diplomacy is a better response to terrorism than juries alone.

National Post

Matt Gurney is Assistant Editor, Comment, and a member of the National Post Editorial Board.