Steve Hewitt is in the department of history at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front Since 9/11 and is currently working on a history of terrorism and counterterrorism in Canada.
Canada's recent experience with terrorism is not unique. Nor is its government alone in seeking to introduce fresh counterterrorism laws and powers. Across the Atlantic, Britain is debating new legislation that would, among a range of changes, allow the government to block the return of Britons suspected of involvement in terrorism while abroad, require Internet providers to keep records of IP addresses so computer users could be identified, and legally require a variety of state institutions, including universities, to "prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism."
As such, there are cautionary aspects of the British experience, both with the current legislation and with past efforts at reform, that should inform debate over the Canadian government bill being tabled Friday.
Top among the lessons is that skepticism about the need for new powers or laws should be the default reaction from parliamentarians, news media and the wider public. Over the past decade, and across seven significant counterterrorism bills introduced since Sept. 11, 2001, various British governments have preached that the counterterrorist sky would come crashing down without the introduction of new, supposedly essential measures.
Mandatory identity cards were needed to prevent terrorism, Tony Blair's government warned. David Cameron's government killed off this proposal in 2010.
Equally crucial, the same voices explained, was the ability to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 90 days in order to gather evidence. MPs, including 50 from Mr. Blair's own party, eventually defeated the measure.
Mr. Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, tried to bring in a 42-day detention period without charge but parliamentary opposition over its impact on civil liberties forced him into retreat. Among the opponents was Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller, a member of the House of Lords who was head of Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, on the day of the July 7, 2005, bomb attacks in London, where 52 people were murdered by terrorists.
Driving the frenzy for new legislation has been a reactive impulse in which there is a continual assumption that the nature of the last terrorist attack will become the new norm. Hence, new laws became necessary to prevent the next 9/11, then the next 7/7, followed by "lone wolf" attacks and now plots involving jihadis who have gone to fight in Syria. The idea that a new type of attack automatically requires a new type of law needs to be reconsidered. There should be a principle that governments act effectively, not simply for the sake of being seen to respond in the eyes of public opinion.
Finally, and most importantly for the future, there has been an increasing acknowledgment (though still not universal) from the British state that, despite a raft of new laws and agency resources, you can't arrest your way out of the terrorism problem. Counterterrorism needs to be holistic by nature.
In Britain, this has meant efforts to address what Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau might call "root causes": countering extremism not through greater surveillance or longer prison sentences but by improving community relations, addressing wider issues connected to alienation (such as Islamophobia and economic deprivation) and, yes, having frank discussions about the connection between violent extremism and certain interpretations of Islam. There must equally be room – and here both Britain and Canada have far to go – for an honest conversation about the impact of Western foreign policy, past and present, as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism.
Terrorism is a scourge but it is not an existential threat to countries such as Britain and Canada, no matter what the doomsayers say. Responding thoughtfully and encouraging resiliency may lack appeal in the middle of an election cycle, but a measured approach may actually bring lasting results.