The call by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews for immigrant communities to keep an eye out for terrorist threats is another way to say that we all have a civic duty to watch out for one another. This is not a call to turn Canada into a Stalinist state. It is aimed at building on the strengths of an open and engaged democracy.
Security services can do only so much in a free society. The United States, with its sophisticated and well financed network of global intelligence, could not stop the terrorist bombings of Sept. 11, and it was only through the quick intervention of bystanders that two catastrophes, one in an airplane over Detroit and one in New York's Times Square, were averted in the past eight months. Does this mean that democracies are essentially powerless because they do not have a spy or informant on every block? No. It means that civic trust, a sense of duty, neighbourliness, cohesion - all those good things that people like to think characterize Canada - are as vital in fighting terrorism as are the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The threat, as exemplified by the arrests of three Canadian citizens this week, including a McGill University graduate of medicine, and a fourth, unknown person, is both largely invisible and catastrophic. A British study published this week talked of "highly motivated, lightly trained" individuals in the next wave of terrorist attacks. Britain is a much bigger target than Canada - it is seen as a proxy for the United States - but the extent of the threat is instructive. At least 235 people have been jailed for their involvement in 20 major terrorist plots in the past decade. The majority - 69 per cent - are British nationals. While only one plot succeeded, the London subway bombings of 2005, at least four others involving eight bombings on airplanes and subway trains, at restaurants and nightclubs, would have worked "if explosive devices had been assembled correctly," says the study from the Royal United Services Institute.
An interconnected world is, as the West knows, a double-edged sword. Trade, knowledge and skills flow back and forth; but so too do violent ideologies. Immigrant communities may be best placed to spot the dangers. Canadian Somalis, mostly Muslim, have reported suspicions of extremists in their midst, Mr. Toews revealed this week. That is a byproduct of people feeling they have a stake in the society.
It is not the only such example. In 2005, after subway bombings in London, the Canadian Islamic Congress posted, under the heading "Better To Be Safe Than Sorry," tips on what to watch for. The congress understands how children of the second generation can become alienated. And it is doing exactly what Mr. Toews wishes, in the best interests of young people, among others.
"Some misguided Muslims may try to recruit Canadian Muslims, especially our young people, and use them to commit crimes against our country, or abroad," the posting, which is still on the website, says. "Know those with whom your teens associate, as well as the websites they frequent." On YouTube there are 1,910 videos of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher of armed jihad. One video alone was viewed 164,000 times. It would be foolish to act as if those videos did not resonate with some people in this country.
Britain became far more alert after its subways were bombed, and its alertness paid off. "After 2005, terrorism had become everyone's problem and terror cells found it less easy to prepare their attacks or to associate as casually as they had from group to group or even cell to cell," the RUSI study said.
It is not only police states that can thwart terror. A community in which people look out for one another can identify and disrupt terrorist plots. That, plus good intelligence work and some luck, is what stands between Canada and those who would commit mass murder.