Responding to the Toronto Terror Arrests

Last weekend, in a pre-dawn raid, four hundred officers arrested seventeen Canadian Muslim youth and young men- mostly under the age of 25- in a grand anti-terrorism bust. Since then, Canadians have been subjected to sensationalist reports of the smashing of an (alleged) Islamist terrorist conspiracy, and the government, police, and press are holding this up as proof that Canada is in the front lines of the “war on terror.”


One of the most disturbing realities of the aftermath of the Toronto arrests is the passive acceptance and normalization of a state of fear, and consequentially, further fortification of the security state. On June 10, the Vancouver Sun reported that an Ipsos-Reid survey found that 49% believed it was justifiable for Canadian authorities to more strongly focus their anti-terrorist activities on the Muslim community. While one survey certainly cannot be taken as being indicative, it certainly cannot be ignored either. Terrorism and the threat of terrorism has created a sense of its own inevitability and a deep, paralyzing fear, which is so profound that one’s critical faculties are distorted. We take for granted that the quickest and most effective way of responding is to seek revenge (even pre-emptively): ‘It is better to be safe than sorry’.

This is not unlike the emotive response to crime and the legitimacy given to the growing, and increasingly privatized, prison industrial complex. On the criminal (in)justice system, Evan Sycamnias has written that “these instituted ways of doing things create their own ‘regime of truth’ which simultaneously shores up the institutional structure and closes off any fundamental questions which might undermine it.” The very construction of terrorism- like criminality- conveniently provides us with a pre-packaged and an unquestionable authoritatively-settled response. Jack Todd reminds us “Every time there is a terror attack or the threat of an attack, the only beneficiaries of the general hysteria are the party in power and the state security apparatus.”

The institutionalization of the US Department of Homeland Security and Integrated National Security Enforcement Team in Canada has resulted in an intense fortification of the security apparatus. The Anti-Terrorism Act is Canada’s legislative response to the 9/11 attacks. Canada’s definition of terrorist activity is vague, imprecise and over-expansive- it includes actions that are taken for political, religious, or ideological purposes that threatens the public or national security by killing, seriously harming or endangering a person, causing substantial property damage that is likely to seriously harm people, or by interfering with or disrupting an essential service, facility or system. According to a report by Ligue des droits et libertés “An act of political dissent or protest for political, ideological or religious reasons can be classified as an act of terrorism if it is aimed at intimidating part of the population, it interferes with “economic security” or it seriously disrupts essential services, be they public or private. This is, in fact, what has happened in Great Britain, where authorities used their powers under the 2002 Terrorism Act against dockers who were picketing in the Port of London.”

The Anti-Terrorism Act gives police forces extraordinary investigative and surveillance powers, authorizes arrests without warrants and preventive detention for interrogation on the basis of mere suspicion. Just this morning, the Vancouver Sun reported that under this carte blanche, Public Minister Stockwell Day has revealed that “law enforcement agencies allowed their helpers in the previous year to commit a broad spectrum of crimes, including gun offences, passport forgery, counterfeiting, possession of stolen property, and theft over $5000.”

It is note-worthy that this year Parliament is considering whether to allow the extraordinary investigative provisions and detention provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act to expire under a five-year sunset clause. Though these provisions have never been used since their enactment, police forces have repeatedly submitted that they would like to retain them. The fact that the seventeen men are now being charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act will undoubtedly serve as a justification for the government to retain these security measures, although the RCMP themselves admitted in an interview with the Globe and Mail that the Toronto arrests were made using the same legal mechanisms that were available prior to the enactment of the Act.

It is also highly convenient that these “national security” arrests occur at a time when government lawyers will be persuading the Supreme Court of Canada that the discriminatory and widely-condemned use of Security Certificates (under which five men are currently held on without charge on secret evidence) is a necessary legal weapon in the War on Terrorism.

Such “tough on terrorism” approaches, like “tough on crime” approaches perpetuate the simplistic idea that terrorism is absolute and evil and focus simply on the narrow question of how to respond rather than on the broader problem of determining its political and economic nature. Terrorism is the symptom, not the disease. There is not even a universally accepted definition of Terrorism. Much of this is War on Terrorism is a war of words, a redefinitional journey involving linguistic and legal contortions that allows the state to fortify itself with increasing policing powers- not for our protection or safety, but for hegemonic control. 

Within the apocalyptic framework that the government and media have cultivated, our minds and emotions are taken hostage. We seem to have forgotten that our governments are inherently ideologically and politically-motivated- both at a systemic level and at the level of understanding that the Conservatives in particular, are bent towards deeper military and political integration with the United States. Eric Margolis has written in the Toronto Sun “this high-profile operation may have been designed as much for public relations and diplomatic reasons as national security. No doubt, Washington will be very pleased with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.” When Condoleezza is congratulating Stephen Harper, that should be enough of a reality-check.

Public hysteria has also meant little to no significant questioning or scrutiny of the evidence. While no one can comment on the guilt or innocence of these men, we should not be expected to jump on this band-wagon with our eyes closed. Judging from public reaction and media commentaries, these men have already been branded as terrorists- guilty as charged.

Initially, media reports spread that one of the men charged had taken flight training at a Toronto college. However, CBC subsequently reported (in a minor news item) that this was incorrect. The media have quoted the police linking the suspects to Al Qaeda, claiming the suspects were “inspired” by Al Qaeda, without providing any evidence to substantiate such a claim. The fact that the raid was a sting operation is being underplayed. In addition, the men never actually obtained any illegal materials. Rocco Galati, attorney for two of the accused, calls the charges against his clients “absolutely vague”. Tom Walkom in the Toronto Star points out that: “What we do know about Operation O-Sage is that the RCMP, as well as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, have been tracking the suspects since 2004. We also know that at least some of their neighbours knew police were watching them. Presumably, some of the suspects did, too. If the alleged conspirators knew they were under surveillance, it seems odd that they continued along merrily with plans to make explosives.”

There are widespread reports that the police have denied the men the right to meet privately with their legal counsel. Lawyers for the accused also complained their clients are in solitary confinement, under 24-hour surveillance, and have been denied access to family members. In the Toronto Star, reporter Linda Diebel described the image of the courthouse when the men were first brought in “under massive police security which included sharpshooters on nearby roofs and tactical squad officers with submachine-guns.” Defence attorney Steven Skurka told CBC News, “The notion that these men are going to have a trial in the equivalent of an armed fortress really speaks against the likelihood of the presumption of innocence operating at the trial.”
Furthermore, before we rush to judgment, it is worth remembering the 19 foreign students, mostly from Pakistan, arrested in 2003 in Toronto, allegedly for plotting to blow up the nuclear reactors at Pickering or the CN Tower. According to at least one government official, an “al Qaeda sleeper cell” had been uncovered. Part of the evidence raised was that the men lived in clusters in sparsely furnished apartments! That these living conditions- common amongst new migrants and students- was taken as evidence, alone ought to have raised more eyebrows. All allegations of terrorism against the detainees were dropped within two weeks of the arrests.
Let us recall that while we were glued to our TV sets watching the events in Toronto unfold, a raid occurred in a house in London, UK with 250 officers storming a family’s house at dawn leading to arrests based on suspicion of terrorism. A 23- year old Muslim man was shot in his chest during the raid. According to a report in the Guardian on June 5, counter-terrorism officials later conceded that lethal chemical devices they feared may never have existed. Thankfully the man who was shot has recovered, unlike Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian-born electrician who was shot dead- with at least eight bullets straight to the head- by London police in July 2005. Police later issued an apology acknowledging that Menezes in fact had no explosives and was unconnected with the attempted London bombings.

We should remember that of the thousands of arrests in the US after 9/11, only a handful were actually charged, let alone convicted- those who were convicted were convicted on minor visa offences. Since 2001, Guantanamo Bay has contained a detainment camp for over 400 persons alleged to be militant combatants and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. The grotesque terror inflicted on the detainees has been well documented from a never-ending list of human rights groups, the UN, and even staunch allies in the “war on terrorism” such as the British government. Three Arab detainees recently committed suicide, to which one Washington diplomat Colleen Graffy crassly responded that it was a “good PR move”. Only 10 of the detainees have even been charged and Guantánamo Bay stands as the most stark and painful symbol of injustice and abuse in the War on Terror.


At a military swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Stephen Harper invoked the civilizational discourse: “Their alleged target was Canada, Canadian institutions, the Canadian economy, the Canadian people. We are a target because of who we are and how we live, our society, our diversity and our values — values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law.” As we know from the 9/11 attacks and the attempted London bombings, it is strategically vital for war-crusading governments to persuade the public that their commitment to freedom, democracy, civilization, and Way of Life is under attack.

Let us not make the mistake of underestimating the power of such evocative rhetoric. The dichotomous language of “us” versus “them” is a brilliantly manipulative tool that serves three primary functions: firstly, to firmly emphasize the racialized national consciousness; secondly, to perpetuate the myth of Canadian innocence and benevolence in order to invisibilize the daily reality of violence and terror wreaked by Canadian imperialist policies both within and beyond these borders; and finally, to discredit critics of government policies by labeling them ‘un-Canadian’ while distracting the public from meaningful debate over current government policies.   

Mark Federman has said that the images of women in burqas in the courtroom bring to mind images from Afghanistan and Iraq  “which increases the fear and paranoia.” Despite the fact that most of the men are Canadian citizens, media outlets have traced how far back the families of the “home grown terrorists” immigrated to strengthen the perception that terrorism is a Third World import and to reinforce the normalization of whiteness in the Western imagination in a manner that renders racialized communities as eternal Outsiders. The shallow self-congratulatory multiculturalism unravels to reveal the embedded racist constructions of identity and entitlement.

When fighting the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism, the ability to designate and attack the hyphenated citizen – in this current climate, the Muslim-Canadian- depends on the reductionist image of Osama bin Laden to personify all Arabs and Muslims in the Western imagination, which necessarily requires the reconfiguration of the nation to exclude all Arabs and Muslims, particularly those Ungrateful Bad Freedom-hating Muslims who challenge the racism of the Canadian state. By comparison, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was considered to be the act of one lone man, which was not reflective of the entire white race. 

At least two hate crimes have been reported in the past week- a Toronto mosque was vandalized and a Montreal muslim cleric was threatened at knife-point and asked if he wanted to “die a martyr” and if he was “carrying belts full of explosives”. While government officials condemn such crimes and isolate them as acts of a few individuals, the more insidious and covert reification of national consciousness and Western superiority remains unchallenged. For example, David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for CSIS, told CBC News that “[w]hen we bring people in large numbers, if there should be strains of radicalism within those numbers, those groups can become self-isolating and cut themselves off from the general population, and therefore not be exposed to the more progressive ideas that we are used to.”

Like the containment of rapidly mutating viruses, such fervently patriotic discourses construct the nation as a contained progressive entity constantly threatened by outside forces. From the events at Pearl Harbor to the events of September 11, terrorists and security threats are seen as non-white, outside the realm of “us”, which serves to justify a stricter immigration policy and the lack of civil rights and due process for racialized detainees in the never-ending War on Terror.
But the reality is that the invocation of the Canadian state as the victim whose benevolent and laudable values are under attack negates the factual reality of Canadian colonialist and imperialist policies. The very inception of Candian nation-hood is based on the genocide of indigenous people. State formation has historically served to displace the free confederations of communities, and the Canadian state has attempted to create a cultural nation of its own by continuing to deny the self-determination of indigenous peoples. Slavery was historically practiced in Canada and its present-day manifestation continues with an apartheid system of labour in which migrants are legislated into hyper-vulnerability without rights of settlement or social/political enfranchisement. On the global stage, while the US is perceived as having been the sole imperialist hegemonic power over the past six decades, Canada has lent its support to interventions and occupations in Vietnam, East Timor, Afghanistan, Haiti, Palestine and Iraq.
We have been willfully ambivalent to the relentless violence that most of the world lives with as a daily companion. It is a lot easier and more comforting to pretend that “our values and our freedoms” are under attack, but in the long-run it will prove to be a mistake. Arundhati Roy has written “Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” We can only evade reality for so long and eventually, it will lead to disastrous consequences. We may choose to speculate about “what might have happened” had these men not been arrested. Or we could concentrate on the fact that just in the past three weeks, over 500 people have died as a result of the violent occupation in Afghanistan. If our collective morality is indeed affected by violence and brutality, let us not bask in our own victimization for too long and instead, work to end these daily injustices that are perpetrated against our neighbours and friends in our name.
Finally, by defining “us” as those who support government actions, it is much easier to brand vigilant and independent critics as “un-patriotic” or worse as “supporters of terrorism”. Such cheap shots are an effective means to silence dissent.  So let us be clear: opposing state security measures and opposing racist and imperialist ambitions does not amount to supporting terrorism; it means opposing and fighting for an eradication of oppressive violence and terrorism in all its forms, including those inflicted by state policies. The War on Terrorism, with its resulting occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the most extreme forms of terrorism, making a war on terrorism “profoundly self-contradictory” as stated by Howard Zinn.

Undoubtedly the events of last week have left people in shock, but let us move beyond our paralysis to voice our opposition to the increasing militaristic and imperial crusades of Western governments. It would only further the government’s repressive agenda for us to remain distracted and to saturate our minds with their distorted version of reality. Under the guise of the Bush-like rhetoric of the “need to fight for freedom”, the government has extended the Canadian Armed Forces mission in Afghanistan by two years. Prime Minister Harper has revealed that the Forces would assume overall command of the US-NATO counter-insurgency operation, allowing the US to scale back their operations while Canadian troops perform the dirty work. Just days after the seventeen arrests, the government close to doubled the number of Canadian occupation forces in Southern Afghanistan.

We are left with the realization that there is no quick solution to the spirals of violence in the world today. The government’s right-wing agenda merely reinforces a racist and crusading Western dominance. Instead it is time for us to delve into history and begin at the beginning of time to lay bare all the incidents of terrorism and brutality. We should turn our fear into strength otherwise we will live with a perpetual sense of fear and be plagued by our own false victimhood. We should have the maturity to realize that everyone- not just us- deserves to be safe from terrorism. We should understand that our proclaimed innocence is offensive if we do not recognize that most of humanity- including those within our borders- live with this tireless source of pain and anxiety everyday. We should develop the capacity to imagine what this world must feel like for individuals, communities, entire cultures who witness our apathy and our complicity. And we should fight with the millions of people across the world who deserve justice.

- Harsha Walia is an activist in a wide range of social movements based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. Also thanking Harjap Grewal and Naava Smolash.

Leave a comment