Is this country on the road to becoming a spooked society? Are we about to succumb to the terror networks' fear campaign, significantly changing our ways, handing them victory without their even scoring a single hit on our soil?
Public opinion analyst Frank Graves has been tracking perceptions of the safety and security landscape in Canada since Sept. 11, 2001. His company, EKOS Research, has new numbers in the wake of the recent arrests of 17 alleged terrorists in Southern Ontario. The pattern before the terror scare showed heightening Canadian anxiety. Now, Mr. Graves concludes, "Canadians' sense of invulnerability to terror has evaporated."
In a study not yet in the public domain, he says there has been "a profound transition in Canadian outlook on security and terror." It may well represent "something of an epiphany for the Canadian public."
Support for pluralism, immigration of visible minorities, civil liberties and Canada as a peacemaker are falling. Support for the militarization of Canada and hard security measures are rising. We are following the American lead. "The new norm," Mr. Graves writes, "is for security to trump most other social, economic, and even political priorities." If his report has merit, we are becoming just as the enemy would want us to be: scared.
Statistical evidence, says the pollster, suggests most of the fears are "egregiously distorted."
In Canada, the chances of being killed by a terrorist strike are minuscule. In the U.S, 10 per cent of the population - 30 million people - believe they will personally experience a 9/11-like event. "There would have to be a 9/11-type episode every day since then for that to be true," says Mr. Graves. "Yet, Americans have turned their society upside down in dealing with security."
We might do the same, especially if it fits the political agenda.
In the U.S., George Bush's Republicans still score highest on the security issue. It is in their interest to keep the population unnerved. In Canada, says Mr. Graves, the rising emphasis on threats and security issues "works to the advantage of the Conservatives."
Viewing Stephen Harper's performance at the Group of Eight summit in Russia, Bill Graham, the Liberals' interim leader, said the Prime Minister was abandoning Ottawa's traditional Pearsonian brokerage role in international affairs.
For Mr. Harper to state the case for Israel was understandable, though sticking to the "measured" response characterization was stubbornly injudicious. But, instead of levelling with Mr. Bush and Tony Blair, instead of telling them that Canada was right on Iraq (and, for that matter, on Suez and Vietnam), the Prime Minister did a lapdog number. It was as if Mr. Harper, more remote from Mr. Bush during his recent Washington visit, had completely forgotten our track record.
On the security issue, the events in Lebanon play directly to Canadians' fears, as do Afghanistan and the bombings in India. The danger is, once you start down the track of bending to the terror scare, nothing can stop the train. A government can do most anything in the name of security. The threat of terror has already made Canada a more militaristic nation, changing our modern role from peacekeepers to combatants.
Mr. Graves reports that multiculturalism remains strong, though "for the first time in recent history, we have witnessed a significant rise in opposition to minority immigration." An encouraging sign, he says, is the generational divide. Younger Canada remains more committed to diversity and civil liberties than the older one.
One of the security issue's most profound impacts is on Canada-U.S. relations. While Mr. Graves notes that there has been much divergence fuelled by the policies of the Bush administration, a dramatic narrowing of the gap on terror-threat perception is drawing the two countries closer. He sees the possibility of a continental haven developing in the face of a more threatening external world.
Indeed, if we play into terrorist hands by yielding to fear, if we, too, become a spooked society, such a haven could well be the route forward.