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To Transport Canada, even books are suspect

Canadians have followed the US lead on all things security, but do they know when to say when?

Police officers patrol on T3 motion vehicles at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, Jan. 5, 2010. Dozens of body scanners are to be installed in Canadian airports to comply with new U.S. security protocols. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — Only the clueless would have been surprised by the Canadian government’s decision last week to introduce full body security scanners at major airports.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have been kowtowing to U.S. fear and insecurity since the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, keen to ease American delusions that Canada is soft on terror.

So, when the U.S. opted for full body scanners, Ottawa was quick to fall in line, despite concerns about invasion of privacy. If the Obama administration had opted for colonoscopies, it’s a good bet the Canadian government would have gone for those, too.

To be fair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is still mulling over the U.S. decision to target passengers from 13 largely Muslim countries, plus Cuba, for enhanced searches. Canada is, in reality and by law, a multicultural nation. That makes profiling politically and legally problematic. Besides, if need be, it can be done without official pronouncements.

If this hesitation fuels American concerns, rest assured that Ottawa is anything but weak at the knees. In fact, it has opened the door to books being prohibited as part of carry on luggage.

After the underwear bomber’s botched attempt to down an American passenger plane on Christmas Day, the government department responsible for aviation, Transport Canada, issued a list of 13 items passengers on U.S.-bound flights could bring on planes. Books were not on the list.

People noticed and complained. A government official was reassuring: Of course books would be allowed, he said. But when an updated list came out last week, it included medication, laptops, crutches, cameras and coats — but still no books. A Transport Canada official said security screeners would use “common sense” to decide whether passengers would be allowed to bring on items not on the list.

Books now seem subject to the discretion of security officials. We can imagine the questioning: “War and Peace? Hmm, the title sounds fishy. And it’s thick as a brick; it could take out several passengers — not on this plane, lady. The Catcher in the Rye? Isn’t that the one that’s been creating homegrown rebels for decades? Forget about it.”

It was clear from the start that the Christmas Day near-tragedy was a stunning intelligence failure: A young man on a U.S. security watch list pays cash for a plane ticket in Nigeria and travels to Detroit, via Amsterdam, with an underwear bomb and no checked luggage — after his father warned U.S. embassy officials of his strange behavior.

Yet airlines and passengers paid the price: Hundreds of thousands suffered through gridlock and canceled flights as airports tightened already tight security with pat downs and meticulous searches. The terrorists could not have expected more chaos and panic if their plan had succeeded.