Political violence is the greatest danger to any democracy. It’s time to crack down on the threats
Veteran British politician Merlyn Rees was the target of several assassination attempts by the IRA in the 1970s. He had made considerable progress as Minister responsible for Northern Ireland. The price he paid was enduring a protective detail of six armed policemen hovering over him every minute, including visits to public restrooms, for more than two decades until the end of his life.
When an American President walks into a big public event, he is preceded by a phalanx of often very aggressive Secret Service agents, pushing everyone aside. Pierre Trudeau discovered them moving furniture in his office.
These are not lasting responses to the threat of political violence. They are too expensive, too invasive and often ineffective. Yet the threat of such violence is a growing concern in Canada. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was confronted in August and several Quebec candidates were targeted. Marwah Rizqy, a Quebec MP who is currently campaigning in the provincial elections there, has received death threats.
London in the 1980s was a scary place to live: police everywhere, with bombings and warning sirens a normal part of life. They have clamped down on political expression of any kind. One shudders in front of a similar future for any Canadian city.
We have some lessons to learn. The response to the G20 policing fiasco in 2010 tarnished the reputation of then-police chief Bill Blair. John Morden’s investigative report found the causes were largely systemic and cited poor communications, weak intelligence, blurred jurisdictional boundaries and a lack of central leadership as contributors. Blair’s reputation recovered as he championed some of the needed reforms.
This year we had the despicable truckers holding Ottawa under siege. Again, it was Peter Sloly, then the city’s chief of police, who was forced out by cowardly politicians. The reasons for the failure of policing in Ottawa were very similar to those of the G20 more than a decade earlier.
Few necessary changes had been made. It is hoped that this truth will come to light later this month before two investigations, and that the blame will then be fairly laid at the feet of politicians – not the police. Let’s hope that Judge Paul Rouleau is as tough as Morden in his recommendations on the necessary reforms, and that the political class listens this time.
All democracies that have successfully fought back against political violence have discovered the same three fundamental principles: education, accountability, and tough punishment. Few students today learn in school the thread that connects social media threats and political murder. Having finally taken diversity education with some seriousness, schools must now start conversations about acceptable and unacceptable political debate, the risk to democracy that political violence still poses, and how to recognize dangerous language and behavior. .
Politicians must stop pointing fingers at each other and agree on the common standards, regulations and laws needed to keep citizens and officials from fearing for their lives. A clear statement from Pierre Poilievre on his views on deadly threats and violence would be refreshing.
Penalties for verbal threats must be made more severe. Social media platforms must be required to open up and clean up their algorithms that help spread hate speech around the world. Employers, schools, public agencies and others must declare “harsh consequences” policies for threatening speech.
We should expect more mass attacks on our major cities by armed protesters. Given the growing number of death threats received by high-profile politicians, it seems almost inevitable that one will be followed through. Verbal confrontations like the one Freeland was subjected to can easily turn into physical attacks.
So, yes, we need to strengthen our protection systems, from physical and electronic fencing to greater surveillance and prosecution of known traffickers of violence. But as we saw just a few weeks ago, when Salman Rushdie was nearly murdered on stage, even though he still had heavily armed guards, they couldn’t prevent violent attacks from those who were ready. to die in their assault.
We need to develop a broad consensus on the limits of acceptable speech and behavior in this country, and then enforce those rules at the first signs of trouble.