A call for prudence

We are about to find out what happens when those entrusted with strengthening our anti-terror laws are the same people who were traumatized by a gun battle in their workplace.

We are about to find out what happens when those entrusted with strengthening our anti-terror laws are the same people who were traumatized by a gun battle in their workplace.

We will see what happens when a caucus discussion about changes to security legislation is short-circuited by the sound of shots.

We are about to find out how far an opposition will go to ensure there is no government overreaction after piling chairs against their caucus room door for protection, the same caucus room door that absorbed a bullet.

Here’s a vote for the power of time and perspective.

And here’s a vote of confidence in a Parliament that will not jump to conclusions in the heat of the moment and a government that will resist the temptation to use last week’s events as an impetus to move into new, unneeded realms.

Before we move too far, time and perspective should force us to ask whether we were dealing with mental health issues last week rather than terrorism, even as the RCMP said Sunday it had “persuasive evidence” that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was driven by ideological and political motives.

It should remind us that more intrusive anti-terror laws will still not give us some type of magical immunity from the lone wolf shooter, misfits such as Zehaf-Bibeau, who was on no terror watch list, who was estranged from family and society, had a history of drug abuse and petty crimes, and apparently felt trapped without a passport in a country he wanted to flee.

Before we let the pendulum swing too far, we should be looking whether resources for those who keep us safe should be a priority, although Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says such agencies have everything they need to do their job, public protestations from both the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP notwithstanding.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said he doesn’t have the manpower to monitor 93 persons on the terror watchlist 24/7 and has already seconded 250 officers to national security operations.

We need to understand why existing police powers are not being exercised.

We must twin increased powers with increased oversight.

The government had already signaled plans for CSIS before the twin tragedies of last week, which took the lives of two Canadian soldiers.

It was to table a bill that fateful Wednesday that would provide more protection for CSIS sources and facilitate better intelligence-sharing with our allies.

But the government has also spoken about more preventive measures, making it easier to detain those who have roused police suspicions, possibly making it illegal to disseminate information seen as promoting violence in this country or abroad.

“In recent weeks,” Harper said the day after the shootings, “I’ve been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, attention and arrest.

“They need to be much strengthened and I assure you … that work which is already underway will be expedited.”

But Harper can show that we won’t be intimidated — as he proclaimed in the wake of the shootings — by crafting a response that gives police and intelligence agencies more resources and powers that are reasonable but do not risk infringing Canadians’ privacy rights.

We have seen what happens when governments move in fearful and vengeful ways.

Not to equate Wednesday’s events with the atmosphere in the U.S. post Sept. 11, but the Patriot Act, misguided military adventurism and bogus “Mission Accomplished” banners were the product of an overreaction and a cowed opposition.

There is no reason anything like that should happen here.

This will be another test of leadership, a crucial moment for Harper, Opposition leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

It will be the second time within a month that Canadian voters can watch their prime minister and two prospective prime ministers deal with momentous issues and there is every indication they will rise to the occasion now in a more reasoned and dignified way than they did in the earlier debate over our contribution to airstrikes in northern Iraq.

The tone from our leaders last week was exactly what was needed at a time of uncertainty with questions hanging in the air.

Now, as we move this week to decide how to formally respond to that trauma, we should take the prime minister at his word.

“We will be prudent but we will not panic,” he said, and that prudence must be reflected in legislation.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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