Arctic terror threats real: really?

This week, CBC's website carried an article with the alarming headline, Arctic Terror Threats Real: Security Agencies.

This week, CBC’s website carried an article with the alarming headline, Arctic Terror Threats Real: Security Agencies. The story opens: “The chilling prospect of terrorists or other extremists exploiting the Canadian Arctic has attracted the watchful eye of federal security agencies”.

Chilling, as in cold, as in the Arctic: very clever, in a headline writer’s kind of way. But is anybody really chilled, as in the blood turning cold with fear, at the prospect of “terrorists or other extremists” in the Arctic? Who are these misdirected terrorists, and who are these other extremists?

Terrorists are the bogeymen of the 21st century. They blow up passenger aircraft, hotel lobbies, shopping malls, crowded city squares, and packed commuter trains. In extreme cases they take out entire buildings, killing thousands. They are terrifying in a much different way from the communist bogeyfolk of yesteryear, who had the power to blow up the entire world, but didn’t use it.

To be labelled a communist, at least in the US, used to mean a career in ruins, friendships frayed, and the public humiliation of being hauled up before the infamous McCarthy committee. To be labelled a terrorist today is to become a person with no rights. A terrorist, even a suspected terrorist, may be incarcerated without charge, may disappear into a secret prison system, and may be prosecuted using evidence gained under torture.

So these “other extremists” who find themselves lumped in with the terrorists who threaten the Arctic must be a pretty dangerous bunch. But who are they? What constitutes an extremist in Canada today? According to the joint CSIS/RCMP assessment cited in the CBC story, “Issue-based activist groups in Canada continue to engage in generally peaceful protest activities … Some activist groups have also resorted to the use of direct action tactics … While protest activities … generally take place in large urban centres, they have also occurred in remote locations, including the Canadian Arctic.”

Let’s try to untangle this web of bafflegab. Does the report mean to contrast or to conflate peaceful protestors with those who have “resorted to direct action tactics”? It seems impossible to tell. What is meant by direct action? Does the report intend to create a giant subset of activists, some of whom blow bubbles at police officers while others blow up mail boxes and dump murdered diplomats in the trunks of cars?

The whole story drips with ambiguity, hinting at, though never quite drawing, a thread of consanguinity between peaceful protestors, Black Block window-smashers, and al-Qaida. When we read that “protest activities” have taken place in the Arctic, we are left to guess whether these were peaceful, legal protests, or some undefined form of direct action.

This July a group of Iqaluit suburbanites staged a small demonstration to prevent the rezoning of their neighbourhood. Back in 2008, some truckers threatened to blockade the Dempster Highway if it wasn’t upgraded. Let’s assume that these matters haven’t raised much concern in the halls of the Canadian security establishment, where they’re busy watching what’s going on next door, in Danish waters in the Davis Strait. There, Greenpeace activists are trying to block a British company from deep-water drilling for oil. Protestors have boarded the rig, tangled with the Danish navy, and floated in the ocean in the path of an explorations ship.

If Canada proceeds with the monumental folly of drilling for oil in the Arctic, the rigs will require some protection against terror attacks, though surely they’ll be in far greater danger from icebergs. What we won’t need is an over-reactive security establishment that creates a bin called “threats” and tries to dump protesters in it along with terrorists.

When it comes to the crunch, which will be the greater threat to the security of Canadians, the protestors bobbing in the ocean in their orange survival suits, or the oil companies rushing the entire region toward environmental disaster? Oh, and let’s not forget that other threat to our freedom and security: overzealous cops who treat civil disobedience as another form of terrorism.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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