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Janice Kennedy: Hysteria is not a good response to terrorism

Principles are problematic things. We hold them dear — until something runs smack into them and threatens to stomp them into the ground. Then we’re forced to make the crucial decision: Hang on to them, or let them go. It can be a tough call.

Principles are problematic things. We hold them dear — until something runs smack into them and threatens to stomp them into the ground. Then we’re forced to make the crucial decision: Hang on to them, or let them go.

It can be a tough call. If someone rapes and murders your child, maintaining a stand against capital punishment might seem unimaginable. Defending free speech might feel ridiculous in the face of vile, hate-filled rubbish.

And holding fast to a belief in civil liberties and tolerance might seem preposterous when innocent bystanders in Boston are blown to bits, or when we learn, via screaming headlines and breathless journalism, that some of the same could be planned for us.

At a time when terrorism seems ubiquitous and inescapable, we Canadians find ourselves wrestling with our principles on a national scale. How unfortunate, then, that our soul-searching is being sidetracked by the voices of intolerance, by the small minds that would have us turn our backs on the things that have traditionally made us Canadian.

The arrests last week of Toronto’s Raed Jaser and Montreal’s Chiheb Esseghaier, alleged bomb-plotters, have brought out a whole new round of sniping — which is occurring, incidentally, in the absence thus far of any revealed concrete evidence.

You can imagine the apprehensive despair that must wash over ordinary Muslims every time a criminal tragedy like Boston, or a potential criminal tragedy like the alleged train plot, hits the news.

There must be a collective groan of “oh no,” much like Catholics hearing about yet another child-abusing priest, a different kind of terrorist.

Ordinary Muslims know that the extremists are a marginal minority, but they also know that the terrorist acts are inextricably linked with their Islamic identity. So although it’s neither rational nor fair, each fresh act of terrorism means they’re in for another round of tarring and feathering.

Much of it will take the form of digs at “otherness,” nativist paranoia suggesting that “they” are not like “us,” making them suspect.

This damning innuendo is bigotry. And it’s un-Canadian. Or at least it used to be.

With fearmongering as its lifeblood, it underscored this week’s debate over the Tories’ freshly resurrected anti-terrorism bill (which coincided, in serendipitous timing, with the Canadian terrorism arrests), signalling the end of the old order. According to Stephen Harper’s government, law-enforcement agencies need things like “preventive detention” to keep Canada safe.

Such cavalier snubs of civil liberties are encouraged by media scaremeisters who stir a pot they’ve brought to a boil.

Toronto talk-radio’s Ryan Doyle, appearing on Sun TV, talked about Canada’s current wake-up call. “People hate us,” he informed viewers. “The target is always on our back.”

And because of that indisputable target, apparently, it’s crucial that the nation dismiss the wimps and appeasers on the loony left who object to pitching civil liberties overboard and narrowing our national tolerance quotient. They’re as bad as, say, Justin Trudeau (He Who Must Be Discredited, no matter how).

So if Trudeau condemns terrorism and then suggests it might not be a bad idea to examine its roots, a major no-no for neo-cons, the required response is to slam him for softness — before twisting his words and ridiculing the resulting new fiction. Trudeau, charged Doyle, “thinks terrorists need a hug.”

Well, no. Not even close.

And a concern for civil liberties — or the worry that we’re cultivating intolerance — does not suggest indifference to terrorism, rejection of the need for national security or the dark embrace of global evil.

Certainly terrorism exists, and certainly it must be confronted. But we won’t defeat it by reducing ourselves, by making our nation less than what it has always tried to be, by giving in to our baser instincts.

Emotion can be a powerful thing, but it has a dark side. When it gets snarled in irrational fear, anger and desire for revenge, it can destroy the things we value most.

Hate-filled hysteria is never a good response.