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Published:March 10th, 2006 08:23 EST
Extraordinary Measures

Extraordinary Measures

By Bruce H.G. Calder

In 1963, a group called the F.L.Q. (The Quebec Liberation Front) began committing violent crimes in an effort to force the separation of Quebec from Canada. For 7 years, the people of Quebec endured over 200 attacks, including several bombings that claimed 5 lives. On October 5, 1970, James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner was kidnapped by the FLQ, followed five days later by the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s Minister of Labour.

On October 17, the FLQ strangled Pierre Laporte, leaving his body in the trunk of an abandoned car and announced that James Cross still had a “death sentence” hanging over his head. Editorials of the day in both English and French were virtually unanimous in their view that Canada was under attack and seriously warned that democracy itself was in danger. What will become known as “The October Crisis” was in full swing.

In response to the crisis, at the request of the Premier of Quebec and the mayor of Montreal, and with the approval of 87% of the Canadian population, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked The War Measures Act, granting the government sweeping powers including the authority to arrest and imprison anybody without charge, the benefit of a trial or even an explanation. (Think “Martial Law”) About 500 people were scooped up in this net (often roused out of bed in the middle of the night) and detained, incommunicado, many for several weeks.

By December 27, the FLQ was entirely crushed, James Cross was free and several members of the terrorist organization would be charged with the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte. The War Measures Act was lifted, Canada continued to have regular elections, and the separatist movement in Quebec confined itself to splitting up the country peacefully enough, albeit with truckloads of blue spray paint. With the exception of several FLQ members being allowed to escape justice by fleeing to Cuba, it was a generally happy ending.

What’s the point of this little bit of foreign history? Well, primarily it has allowed me to burn about half of the words I need for this article without having to, as of yet, directly defend President George Bush’s most likely illegal domestic spying initiative. On a more serious note, I am trying to illustrate that quite simply, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

In 1970, there was no internet, no cell phones, and very few computerized databases of personal information to be found. I’m told that people actually went to banks to pull out something called “cash” which was used to purchase goods and services, like fertilizer, diesel fuel, and flight lessons. If you wanted to find out what somebody was up to, you had to do it the old fashioned way, by searching their house, going through their garbage, or questioning their friends and neighbors. Not a big deal when you’re only worried about a small number of suspects, but more problematic in the context of having to deal with potentially thousands of people without criminal records who may be plotting to blow something up.

In 1970, Canada felt its very existence was threatened and acted accordingly, but without the benefit of modern technology, Trudeau had to cast a net much wider and with much more draconian force than what President Bush is trying to do today.

Before 9/11, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allowed for unlimited spying abroad, while spying within the United States was allowed only if a FISA warrant was granted. After 9/11, the Bush Administration has been pushing for, and getting changes to FISA making it much easier to monitor people within American borders, using roving wiretaps and whatnot. Events, not to mention e-mails, move fast, and authorities must be able to take immediate action if it means the possibility of saving lives.

Fortunately for Canada, when it was decided that a crackdown was needed, it was all over in the course of a few months. Unfortunately for the United States, terrorism that began long before 9/11 will undoubtedly need to be fought until long after people forget the year in which 9/11 took place. Al Qaeda has a seemingly unlimited number of followers (we’ll handle the “who’s fault is THAT” argument another day if you don’t mind), fanatically devoted to the destruction of West, and who are able to blend into a very diverse and increasingly anonymous American population.

George Bush’s problem is the fact that he has been so successful at preventing a 9/11 Redux on U.S. soil. Average Americans no longer feel that a deadly attack is imminent, there has not been one terrorist attack within U.S. borders since 9/11, and last I checked, martial law has not been declared.

There exist today tools to track down terrorists before they kill without having to resort to soldiers with guns, in our cities, patrolling the streets, so you’ll have to excuse me for forgiving the President for using every tool at his disposal to protect you. There are real problems in the way Bush has gone about expanding domestic spying, in secret and with few controls, and these must be addressed, but make no mistake, in general, President Bush has been doing the right thing.

I’m not going to argue that President Bush acted legally in authorizing the NSA spying. I simply don’t know.. What I do know is that when I Google the phrase “could have prevented 9/11” I get almost 23,000 hits. What would you say to George Bush if another 2000 Americans are killed in a terrorist attack and he had not done absolutely everything in his power to prevent it?