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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a news conference in Richmond Hill, Ontario January 30, 2015. Canada's sweeping new anti-terror legislation would make it a crime for anyone to call for attacks on Canada and gives a much larger role to the government's main spy agency. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It aims to maim and to kill, but above all it seeks to provoke a more powerful opponent. A madman with a gun on Parliament Hill, conspirators dreaming of blowing up a bridge, a lunatic turning a car into a weapon – these can take life, but they are not an existential threat to Canada. They cannot destroy democracy, the rule of law or our rights and freedoms. They cannot overthrow the Canadian government. By themselves, they cannot accomplish much beyond murder. To gain recruits, to advance their cause and to leave behind anything other than death, they need our help.

Terrorism is a tactic. It is a judo move, in which the weaker party's only hope is to use his opponent's strength against him. And compared with a lone-wolf terrorist, or even organized groups, Canadian society is infinitely stronger. Of course we have to guard against the possibility of terrorism. Of course we have to act against it. But in acting, we should not fight as our opponent would wish us to fight. We should instead play to our strengths and advantages.

What do terrorists want? Millenarian death cults and the small numbers of disaffected and confused young men who have grabbed onto them imagine a global war between West and East, Islam and Christendom, believers and infidels. It is the world as they see it, but also the world they hope to bring about.

They want us to react to them, and above all to overreact. Terrorism is designed to provoke an overreaction, which in turn causes collateral damage, leading to polarization, more reaction and overreaction, and more violence. Only in a polarized world do the radicals stand a chance of winning attention, sympathy and recruits.

To avoid setting off that cycle, the stronger party has to use his strength carefully instead of recklessly. Never bring in a steamroller for a job that calls for the surgeon's knife.

Recently, the Prime Minister and his ministers have taken to telling Canadians that the so-called Islamic State group has "declared war on Canada" – and that Canada is thus at war, against ISIS abroad and its proxies at home. The response is mistaken in two ways.

It exaggerates the power of a gang of thugs who aren't even a state. If organized criminals thousands of kilometres away put out a video announcing their intention to wage war against all of humanity, including Canada, Ottawa might take the threat seriously. But it would be put in its proper context. It would be given its due weight, and nothing more.

Here at home, lone-wolf and lost-dog terrorists dreaming of a war of civilizations should not get their wish, even rhetorically. Using the language of war dignifies their delusions and elevates their crimes. Better to meet and defeat them on our country's preferred turf: old-fashioned police work, patient intelligence gathering, meticulous legal proceedings and the fairest of trials. We know how to do this.

The government has also spoken as if helping Canada's allies to fight ISIS in Iraq, by sending fighter jets and special forces, were key to counteracting the threat of terrorism at home. That's not right either. The two objectives are distinct and largely separate.

There are good reasons for Canada to be assisting Iraq and in particular the Kurds of Northern Iraq in their fight against ISIS. Canada is helping friends and allies in a humanitarian cause against a ruthless enemy; the goal of pushing back ISIS and ending its attacks on Iraqis is limited, realistic and attainable. ISIS wants total war and a global clash of civilizations. Canada should give it nothing of the sort.

It is also important to remember that, though ISIS claims to espouse all sorts of ideas of universal revolution, it is the product of the complex and shifting politics of Iraq and Syria. It is driven in part by forces, such as a history of Sunni-Shia grievances in Iraq, that have nothing to do with terrorism in Canada. Canadian home-grown radicals have shown themselves to be as ignorant of the nuances of Mesopotamian politics as they are of Islam.

And it is important to remember that Canadian home-grown radicals, Islamist or otherwise, existed long before the recently formed ISIS. The threat, small but real, is likely to remain after ISIS is no more.

Canada's small number of terrorists thus far have been mostly self-radicalized. Think of the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu murderer Martin Couture-Rouleau or parliamentary shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Both were deeply troubled men who at some point grabbed onto ideas floating about on the Internet, and decided that the purifying appeal of violence was the answer for what ailed them. They weren't sent here by ISIS; it would be more accurate to say that they caught a virus, albeit one that the intellectual immune system of the overwhelming majority of Canadians of all faiths is thus far resistant to.

They were also self-Islamicized. Their made-up religion of endless war had little to do with the Islam encountered in Canada's mainstream mosques. Otherwise, this country might be overrun with Couture-Rouleaus and Zehaf-Bibeaus. It is not.

On the day of the Parliament Hill shooting, this newspaper editorialized "against exaggeration, hysteria and despair" and "in favour of calming the hell down."

Over the past few weeks, the Prime Minister has seemed intent on riling people up and making the most of the terrorist threat. He has exaggerated the danger of ISIS and its connection to possible terrorism in Canada. That's wrong. At a time like this, the PM should be the chief minister in charge of deflating hyperbole, putting things in perspective – and reminding Canadians that we must continue as we always have, on guard but free.