‘Preventative arrest’ won’t stop terror attacks

There is a debate that seems to happen in the wake of every terrorist attack or violent shooting: Will new laws that might contradict some previously held rights make people safer? Is it worth it to give the state more intrusive powers if doing so might stop another attack?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to have come down firmly on the pro side of this debate. At a press conference earlier this month, he promised to bring forward new anti-terror legislation as soon as the House of Commons returns at the end of January.

Harper would not say exactly what the new bill would entail, but did say it would likely involve expanded powers for police to arrest those suspected of terrorism, including ‘preventative arrest’—that is, the ability to arrest people who have committed no crime.

In parliamentary committee meetings in the weeks before the Ottawa shooting, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney spoke about how the Conservative government had made it possible to strip people who had become radicalized of their Canadian citizenship. 

When asked if this would infringe on these people’s Charter rights, Blaney said that in order to remain a citizen, one must uphold Canadian values.

After the shooting and the recent brutal massacre at Charlie Hebdo in France, it is even more difficult than before to imagine that many will protest very hard about the expanded police powers or be upset that those who sympathize with terrorists might lose their citizenship. 

On the surface, it is easy to understand that point of view: what does it matter if terrorist radicals get hurt?

It matters a great deal.

Blaney is quite right that Canadian values and Canadian freedoms are worth defending. 

Some of these traditional Canadian values, such as the right not to be held unreasonably without charge, or the right to keep your citizenship whether or not you associate with people we don’t like, seem to be falling by the wayside. There is no doubt that some of the people who would be affected by these laws do want to harm Canadians. 

But terrorism is effective because terrorists strike at ideas and try to replace them with their poisonous values. Black-and-white thinking and a “us-vs. them” dichotomy come to mind.

In the rush to try and eradicate terrorism, it is important not to lose sight of what makes Canada worth defending in the first place. Preventative arrest is not likely to stop attacks, and is likely to do the sort of damage terrorists want. Only this time, they won’t have to lift a finger.