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Quebec, 2001: Security technology has proliferated since 9/11 (RYAN REMIORZ/Canadian Press)
Quebec, 2001: Security technology has proliferated since 9/11 (RYAN REMIORZ/Canadian Press)

Rick Salutin

When security makes you feel insecure Add to ...

Toronto is getting its first taste (or tase) of post-9/11 security, for this June's G20 summit. There will be a large downtown security zone with a three-metre fence, a system of passes and gates, a distant protest park, a holding pen for arrests, more police and private security than the Olympics had, and other details we aren't allowed to know for - of course - security reasons. Canadians initially encountered this stuff at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City in 2001, featuring water cannon and tear gas. The technologies have since proliferated.

A regretful sigh of acceptance is the main response. City Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose district is most affected and who has a long history as a social critic, has kept constituents informed, but even he hasn't bothered to protest much. So let me outline some ways that these and other recent versions of security make me feel less secure.

For leaders and officials at these events, as well as handlers and aides, the level of protection for their precious bodies beggars all the armour that surrounded feudal lords. Their safety clearly matters more than others'; it's bound to give them an exalted sense of worth and a distorted relation to lesser lives beyond the fence. This is bad for them as decision makers in all areas, including security. Look at Gordon Brown's blundering response to a British voter this week. What's shocking isn't that he didn't realize his mic was on, but his blanket dismissal of her (bigoted, I agree) views. He's the guy who's supposed to have working-class roots and understand their fears.

Or take the media. Within memory, you could walk into any newspaper or TV station and find people whose work you wanted to discuss. It wasted some time but had a rough-hewn democratic quality. Today, it sounds utopian and reckless. Media outlets are as cordoned off as the G20. Don't you think that's affected the dive in respect for journalists, the hostility to mainstream media, the rage unto violence against them at tea party rallies in the United States? Occasionally, in that past, there might have been a row in the newsroom; others would help calm it down, or call the cops. It was a tradeoff.

Tight security in public schools seems like a no-brainer. If police in the halls, CCTV and locked doors can prevent even one awful incident, it surely makes sense. But look from the other side: If parents and local people have easy access, they feel involved, they get to know each other, creating a sense of community around the school that gives students confidence they aren't alone, that others care. This can increase alertness around the school to strangers and dangers. The school functions as a centre of community rather than an enclave under siege in a fractured society where everyone is on their own and all you can do is beware the encroaching menace. The solution is community, not clampdown, and the two tend to work against each other, even if at times you must bring in the cops, locks and cameras.

As a security countermodel, consider the public library. With rises in homelessness, mental illness and unemployment, plus access to DVDs, the Internet etc., anyone might show up - and bring lunch. So the security guard is as central now as the librarian. Yet, people come and go freely. Last time I was in, talking to a librarian, a guard reported that a client had something moving in a paper bag. The librarian went to see. The client said there were two pigeons in the bag but not to worry, their wings were clipped so they couldn't get out and fly around. The client left, I assume, feeling accepted rather than alienated, which makes for more security by building inclusive community. A few of those lost souls might add a touch of reality to the G20 - and give our leaders something to think about, too.

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