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Punishing Bad Thoughts: Next Generation Canadian State Repression

by Jeff Shantz

Punishing Bad Thoughts: Next Generation Canadian State Repression

By Jeff Shantz

The apparently random killings of two Canadian Forces personnel, October 20 near Montreal and October 22 in Ottawa, have served, not surprisingly as great mechanisms for reactionary political opportunism. The ruling Conservative Party of Canada, and allied pundits in the corporate media, wasted no time in using the Ottawa shooting in particular as an opportunity to ratchet up social phobias and fear politics, focused once again on that malleable and opportune figure of “the terrorist/terrorism” as means to advance the repressive agendas that are always central to their political projects.

Not satisfied with the arsenal of legislative and other means already at their disposal—some of which include security certificates, Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) surveillance of electronic communications, terror lists, anti-gang laws, and other legislation criminalizing simple association —conservative legislators and commentators alike have clamored for new and expanded legislation that would criminalize “bad thoughts.”

For the Canadian state this would represent an open ended catch-all tool that would allow government sweeping powers to target and punish challenging or oppositional ideas, statements, and/or images. It would seek to criminalize any social and political commentary deemed extremist or radical, not as an overstepping of its authority but as its intention. This would accompany moves already underway by government to encourage residents to keep an eye on their friends and neighbors to ferret out any signs of “personality” change or “radicalization.” An open appeal to mass snitching; a snitch society.

As conservative political commentator John Ivison noted the day after the Ottawa shootings, the Conservative Party is considering new legislation that would make it an offence to condone terrorist acts online. Notably discussion of this legislation began before the two October events, though they have certainly provided a great moment for government plans. According to one Conservative MP:

“There is frustration in government, and among law enforcement agencies, that the authorities can’t detain or arrest people who express sympathy for atrocities committed overseas and who may pose a threat to public safety. Do we need new offences? If so which?” (Ivison, John. 2014. “Conservatives Mulling Legislation Making it Illegal to Condone Terrorist Acts Online.” National Post October 23.).

According to Ivison’s sources the government is likely to bring in new hate speech legislation that would make it a crime to claim online that terrorist acts are justified. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has focused on toughening law and policing powers and giving law enforcement agencies “additional tools” (Ivison 2014). Harper proclaimed, following the Ottawa shootings:

"In recent weeks, I've been saying that our laws and policepowers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest. They need to be much strengthened, and I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that work which is already underway will be expedited."

We need to contextualize the state’s appeals to snitching on radicalization and the move to punish bad thoughts in ongoing projects of repression by the Canadian state. In addition to the legislation criminalizing bad thoughts, other mechanisms of control under discussion include measures designed to increase data access for domestic intelligence services and to institute a new form of extra-judicial detention.

The Ottawa shooting occurred on the very day the government was to introduce legislation giving the RCMP, CSIS, and CSEC expanded powers. These additional powers give police the power to make a preventive arrest of anyone suspected of planning a terrorist attack. Police can also require people with information believed relevant to the investigation of a past or future terrorist act to appear before a judge. Additional legislation will give CSEC more authority and capacity to track terror suspects abroad and will also provide blanket identity protection for the agency's human sources.

In a news conference following the Ottawa shootings, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson bemoaned the fact that the police currently cannot charge anyone who has yet to commit a crime, and suggested there needs to be a change. He added: "We need to look at all options to deal with this sort of difficult and hard-to-understand threat" (Elliot, Louise. 2014. “Ottawa Shooting: Harper Government Wants to Make Terror Arrests Easier.” CBC News October 24).

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney went further:

"The challenges are the thresholds - the thresholds that will allow either preventive arrest, or charges that lead to sentences, or more simple operations. So what the prime minister has asked is for us to review in an accelerated manner the different mechanisms that are offered to police to ensure everyone's security."

In a subsequent interview with CBC News, Blaney asserted the government’s view that the measures recently introduced in anti-terrorism legislation don't go far enough (Elliot 2014). According to Blaney:

"When we tabled the Combating Terrorism Act, we activated some capability for our law enforcement to do some [preventive arrests]. What we are realizing now is there are some thresholds that would need adjustment so that it is more practical and more functional to intervene." (quoted in Elliot 2014)

The thresholds in question include actually doing something. The government is seeking means to arrest and detain people simply for expressing “bad thoughts” or even sympathizing with extreme or radical perspectives, particularly on political matters.

We need to be clear that this is only the most recent step in a range of practices and policies initiated as part of a broader program to criminalize dissent and repress resistance politics. The terror list and anti-terror laws are also part of this.

The move to punish bad thought must be viewed in the context of the Canadian state’s intensification of it imperialist “global war on terror” (which always involves real imperial invasion, conquest, occupation, exploitation). Indeed the first bombing sorties of Canadian F-18s occurred mere hours after the killings of the soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec.

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