What terrifies in the terrorism arrests announced yesterday in Ottawa is that the Islamists' call to mass murder, if the accusation is true, was accepted by a McGill University-trained medical doctor who loves hockey and sang on Canadian Idol. Even those individuals who seem to be, and may in fact be, well integrated into their communities, may not be immune to the lure of jihad. This is not new to other parts of the world, notably Britain, but it is a shock for Canada, an open, integrated society that likes to think its openness protects against violence and radicalism of all kinds.
For destroying stereotypes about accused terrorists, it is worth watching the 2008 video, available here, in which Khuram Syed Sher of London, Ont., sings Complicated by Avril Lavigne and dances on Canadian Idol. It seems impossible that this serene and comical figure, gently mocking his own religion and culture, would wish to destroy the society whose pastimes he seems so good-naturedly to accept. The 28-year-old Dr. Sher in recent years has also played in a ball hockey league, the most Canadian of ventures. Not to mention that he accepted the Hippocratic oath. He should of course be presumed innocent. But with the finger of state suspicion pointing at him, it is fair to wonder, Did this man really heed the call? What turned him? If he turned, which others might? And whose job is it to persuade people like him of what this society takes for granted - that mass murder of one's fellow citizens in pursuit of political goals is always wrong?
The reported reaction of an uncle - "Oh my god, impossible. He's not that type of person. You must be joking" - could stand for a nation's incredulous response. Yet even the uncle's shock gives way to alarm. "These days, frankly speaking, you cannot even trust your brother or sister. The world is getting nasty."
The question for Canada is how to protect against a threat that cannot be stereotyped, or fought by profiling based on age, appearance or education. The answer is not to become less open. It is vital that those who would kill their fellow Canadians with improvised bombs, or support terrorism abroad, are not sheltered or ignored by anyone in the Muslim community who might become aware of the dangers they pose. An informant played a key role in exposing the Toronto 18 plot, involving planned bomb attacks in crowded areas. Canada has not been successfully attacked after 9/11. Good security intelligence depends in part on co-operation from the community. Openness and an easygoing spirit of tolerance are protective.
It is a nasty world in which one cannot trust a brother or sister, or a hockey-playing Canadian medical graduate who sings Avril Lavigne songs. In such a world, it may be hard to trust and accommodate one's neighbour. But that trust is what makes Canada work, and a few accused terrorists should not be able to ruin it for everyone else.