Spying on your neighbors

To spy or not to spy? Or rather, how much watchfulness is called for when we can expect that politically motivated loners among us suddenly become terrorists?

After the attacks in Canada, there is no longer room for complacency. Although the magnitude of such attacks can hardly be compared with those of 9/11, it is fair to say that the resulting shock in a nation as peaceful and tolerant as Canada is deep enough to impact the psyche of every Canadian, from coast to coast.

Like the United States, Canada will never be the same. The attacks on the Twin Towers in New York swept away American complacency, the ingrained feeling of trust that manifested itself in the American habit of taking people at their word. All at once, there was no more trust in the face value of people and events. The government deepened the rejection of such trust as it called on people to report any suspicious activity, endorsing a state of mind that was uncomfortably close to spying on others. One cannot think of a more un-American attitude than spying on other people or even doubting other peoples’ words and behavior. Such are the lamentable consequences of the wounds inflicted on a free nation’s cherished traditions. Now it is the turn of the Canadians to lick their wounds and go on with a different mode of life that confers a high priority to security and watchfulness, to the detriment of social and psychological welfare.

On the positive side of the ledger, multiculturalism is strongly embedded in Canada and while complacency may be gone forever, Canadian society will be able to withstand the pressures that jihadist violence has engendered in that country. The common threat to the societies of Canada and United States comes from single, self radicalized individuals. Security measures must include wide ranging programs of counter radicalization that cannot but involve Muslim communities where the danger of Jihadist radicalization is the highest. This would appear to be a necessary campaign also owing to a possible backlash against Muslim communities from whence the attackers came. The danger, however, does not hide within such communities but in the self-radicalization of some
individuals. This is the case in the United States as well.

One sharp consequence of the Ottawa attacks is legislation that will strengthen the security apparatus and heightened security at public and government buildings and meeting places. Just as in the United States, visitors will see a much larger police presence, but not to the extreme of militarization that many claim has taken hold in the United States.

The bottom line is that Americans and Canadians, not unlike Europeans, have to worry about a large enough number of self radicalized individuals who are increasingly engaged in terrorist activities. In some cases, their emergence is more the result of social adjustment problems than of religious fanaticism induced by indoctrination. Nipping them in the bud is a very difficult undertaking. In other words, it is the “lone wolf” symbolized by the Ottawa home grown terrorist Zehaf Bibeau that is almost impossible to detect because he may be influenced not by a physical connection with ISIS and al-Qaida but by the ideology on Internet.

Unquestionably, the number of “lone wolf” missions has increased in the United States: there have been at least five since 2006 and in some cases they did not have Islamic family roots. They all had a common purpose: punishing their own country for the perceived injustices perpetrated against Muslims around the world.

The threat of homegrown terrorists may or may not signal a new era in international terrorism but it is imperative that it be faced with increased surveillance and intelligence, all of which calls for wider citizen cooperation. It is just one of the ways that a free society can protect itself.

Given that the “lone wolf” killing sprees are virtually unstoppable, the security establishment is called upon to prevent the actions of a single person who hides in plain sight, quite a different task than finding and dismantling foreign networks of terrorists that plan on doing damage to American interests and society. And yet, identifying and neutralizing the 1 percent or so that will embrace and launch terrorism requires a large amount of resources. The final question is whether this effort can be accomplished without violating civil rights or altering the best instincts and constitutional beliefs of American society. Or, worse still, spying on your neighbor.

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