British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once famously explained why politics and governing was a little more complicated than a political science class might suggest. "Events, dear boy, events."
We have experienced just such a week as Canadians. Two soldiers are dead, gunned down by misguided fanatics, and also their fellow citizens. Gunshots in the Hall of Honour in Parliament are forever imbedded in public memory. We are now inured with the phrase "lock down." And Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant of Arms of the House of Commons, is a public hero for shooting a gunman down.
A lot of events for one week. Here's what we can expect in the weeks ahead:
The Conservatives will come back to the House of Commons with a proposal for enhanced powers for CSIS and the RCMP. Parliament should insist that fear and emotion should play no part in assessing any new laws, and that enhanced accountability and oversight should accompany any such enhancement. Jack Major in his Air India report, Dennis O'Connor in his inquiry, and the Security Intelligence Review Committee in its annual reviews have all called for such improvements. Security is not the business of CSIS alone, and robust surveillance must be matched by robust review.
Any party seeking to win the confidence of Canadians has to show they have a capacity for balance and judgment. What was splendid about the response in the House of Commons the day after the shooting was the genuine emotion and generosity of spirit in the wake of the shooting and the fear. What we know in our gut is that these moments happen rarely, and won't last very long.
All three leaders spoke well. They hugged each other, which was an important expression not only of simple solidarity, but also of the sense of sheer relief. One can only hope that their handlers did not spend hours rehearsing the event. We all thought it was genuine, and spontaneous, and were happier as a result.
The government has to listen to the concerns about balance and accountability. The opposition has to realize that the public is concerned about security, and doesn't want mere partisanship to get in the way of policymaking.
The issues raised are not easy. The Islamic State now has an aggressive stance on social media, and its recruitment and indoctrination are intense. We can't punish people for their thoughts, but we need to be able to respond to their actions. An effective strategy requires deep cultural knowledge, the engagement of many communities and their leaders, and the resources to be nimble in dealing with new groups and new threats.
If individuals are dangerous enough that their passports are seized or denied, and they are on a "watch list," Canadians are asking themselves what else can be done. Police still need probable cause to arrest and keep someone in custody. Still, there is a legitimate question: Is there more that could have been done, within the boundaries of the Charter, to prevent the two killings this past week, and to prevent other attacks?
At the same time – and we saw this in response to the government's overreach on warrantless surveillance of personal computers – the public still has concerns about privacy, and the rights of free speech and free association. These are quite rightly deeply ingrained values, and we ignore them at our peril.
There is as well the issue of Canada's foreign and defence policy. The watchword is effectiveness. There should be no disagreement that organizations like IS need to be, in the much-used phrase "degraded and ultimately destroyed." But the way this is done, and the alliances formed to achieve it, are key to getting to the objective. We also should be aiming to achieve democratic stability in the region, respect for all national and cultural groups, and help to those who are fighting on the ground. Air power will not do it alone, although it is clearly a necessary component.
We also need policies to deal with the humanitarian consequences of these terrible conflicts, the refugees left without food and shelter. A reasoned discussion of all these issues would be welcome The debate will resume in earnest in the days ahead, as the rawness of the emotion wears off and the search for political advantage resumes. But an event has happened, and how leaders and parties respond to it will have a major impact on their – and our – political future.
I began by quoting Harold Macmillan. Let me add Winston Churchill and Tony Blair to the mix. When it was suggested to him by security forces that all theatres should be closed during the London blitz, Churchill asked simply "Why would we do that? That's what we're fighting for." After 9/11, Tony Blair famously remarked "everything has changed." No less than the Lord Chief Justice Tom Bingham in his brilliant little book The Rule of Law disagreed. The underlying values of our legal system, he pointed out, have served us well. Current issues of security and terror, as critical as they are, have to be dealt with inside the framework of the rule of law.
In Canada, the Harper government has to show that any changes to the law are fully in keeping with our democratic values. The opposition has to demonstrate that what is proposed falls outside those boundaries and in our current circumstances can't really be justified. The Charter, and a concerned public, both require our politicians to meet this standard.