Canada’s Balance

Do the recent arrests of suspected terrorists in Canada show that the country has struck the right balance between security and civil liberties?

A New York Times article suggests that requiring the police in Canada to obtain a warrant before conducting surveillance and covert searches was conducive to thwarting the terrorist plot. The article quotes Mike McDonell, assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: “I never sought greater authority to conduct monitoring and surveillance, and I don’t expect to be asking for any more now.” A scholar is also quoted as saying that Canada doesn’t need broader government surveillance of the N.S.A. variety.

(While the article reports that the Canadian Security Establishment is permitted to intercept foreign communications upon authorization by the Minister of Defense (but without the need for a judicial warrant), the article suggests that the CSE was not involved in the recent terrorist arrests.)

It’s easy to say you’ve struck the right balance when you work within the law and manage to stop a terrorist cell. I’m not sure, though, that that’s the best basis for assessing whether we’ve struck the right balance between security and liberty. If the terrorists in Canada had succeeded in blowing up buildings and people, would we conclude that the Canadian balance was wrong and needed to be readjusted?

The right balance between security and liberty might allow for some failures, i.e. some acts of terrorism that don’t get stopped, because stopping them would involve too great a limit on liberty. On the other hand, the right balance might be security measures and restrictions on civil liberty greater than necessary (as measured by the number of actual terrorist incidents) because we’d rather err on the side of caution.

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