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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?

Security crackdowns are easier than national discussions on the role America’s Middle East policy plays in increasing the pool of potential terrorists. Yet we’ve seen this film before: Ban sharp objects like box cutters and terrorists use shoe bombs; scan shoes and they use liquid explosives; ban liquids and they shove bombs down their underwear; implement full-body scanners and … stay tuned.

In Europe, where people understand that terrorism was around centuries before 9/11, the reaction is strikingly different.

When suicide bombers blew up 52 commuters in the London subway in 2005, Londoners were back riding the trains and going about their lives the next day. Calm defiance was the general mood.

After the bombings, British prime ministers — first Tony Blair and later Gordon Brown — tried to extend the amount of time terror suspects can be detained without charge, from 14 days to as much as 90 days. But politicians defeated the proposals, eventually settling on 28 days.

British politicians have learned some lessons from the shameful “dirty tricks” their security forces used to fight the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s: Fundamental principles of democracy, such as habeas corpus, must not be undermined in the name of fighting terrorism. John Major, a former British prime minister, who once was the target of an IRA bomb, put it this way: “A free and open society is worth a certain amount of risk.”

A common terrorist strategy is to push the state into using increasingly repressive methods to combat them. The idea is to reveal what terrorists consider is the state’s true, fascist face, thereby revolting its citizens and weakening its legitimacy.

Al Qaeda has used a version of that strategy, and the U.S. has been eager to oblige. The Afghan War, the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, rendition to torture, interrogation through torture — all these policies have been used by Al Qaeda and its affiliates as propaganda about America’s true nature, and as powerful recruiting tools. U.S. President Barack Obama has taken steps to change some of these policies, but it’s unclear how far he will go.

Canada hasn’t been immune to this lowering of democratic principles. In 2002, it’s national police force, the RCMP, participated in the U.S. rendition to torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was wrongly suspected of terror links. And now, even books are suspect. At what point do we start wondering if the terrorists are winning?