By Jeremy Littlewood
Events in Canada in the last few days will change our understanding of the security situation and how we all – Parliamentarians, officials, citizens – respond to and manage it. Statements such as those from testimony earlier this month – the threat of terrorism is diffuse, complex and able to change rapidly – now have salience and more prominent meaning. As the Prime Minister noted in his statement over the next few days and weeks much that is unknown will become clearer. There will, of course, be a reaction on numerous levels, and necessarily so. How we react will have important implications for managing the threat from terrorism in the coming months and years.
We should first reflect on some positive aspects of the response to the attack in Ottawa. Overall, the system worked: individuals, authorities, and the bureaucracy reacted with some skill and considerable flexibility in a very confusing situation. The numerous responses from professionals and people caught in the downtown core, from the Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers in Parliament and staff, passers-by who aided Corporal Cirillo, police and authorities who responded quickly, MPs and their staff who remained calm, and the media for doing a collective good job on reporting events on TV, in e-print, and via social media. Watching Canada from the safety of my office in Ottawa efficiency, effectiveness and calmness were evident and Ottawa got through the day without hyperbole and fear-mongering.
Now the more difficult task is ahead: while we can be sure that the authorities will be reviewing everything and the intelligence and security community will be revisiting all their files and reassessing all investigations, the clamour for a reaction will increase as the hours and days tick by.
With that in mind, let’s not forget a central lesson from the experience of many democracies with terrorism: over-reaction is as big a problem as under reaction. New powers, procedures and resource allocations should be considered in a manner that is thoughtful and where debate can get at some difficult issues. The lessons of history and experience should not be ignored. Worth bearing in mind here are seven observations from Richard English in the conclusion to his 2009 book Terrorism: How to Respond and the accompanying lecture. In short, democracies should respond as follows:
- Learn to live with terrorism. We can’t eradicate terrorism, but we can manage the problem.
- Where possible, address underlying root causes and problems. He of course notes that it is not always possible to do that for a variety of reasons.
- Avoid the over-militarization of response.
- Intelligence is the most vital element in successful counter-terrorism.
- Respect orthodox legal frameworks and adhere to the democratically established rule of law.
- Coordinate security, financial and technological-related preventative measures.
- Maintain strong credibility in counter-terrorist public argument.
Canada has responded to terrorism in the past; it will have to do so again in the future. Both the past and the future should be at the forefront of our minds as we contemplate our response in the next few days and weeks.