Everyone seems to be scratching their heads in disbelief over last week's terror arrests. How could this happen on our tolerant soil? How could these young Canadians become so radicalized?
Surprisingly, few people seem to be questioning the accuracy and authenticity of the allegations made by police. I guess the presumption of innocence just gets in the way of our compelling need to be comforted by the illusion that national security and law enforcement agents have the situation under control.
In time, a court of law will determine if Toronto was truly at risk of a terrorist attack. But the courts will never be able to answer our questions about why some people succumb to the allure of hate-filled ideology.
Like most jurisdictions, Canada responded to 9/11 by passing more laws. No one wanted to tackle the harder questions of the origin and evolution of this hate. We preferred instead to hope that new laws would prevent the hate from exploding into criminal acts.
The solution to the problem seemed to lie with secret investigative hearings and indefinite detention rather than with developing strategies to counter extremist ideology.
The threat posed by fanatics cannot be obviated by law alone. Effective use of anti-terrorism laws may prevent an attack, but it will never be able to address the underlying hatred, which in turn will continue to lead to future attacks. We cannot hide behind the apparent comfort of enacting tough laws to combat racism, bigotry and terrorism, for the law can do little to defuse any hatred born of false ideology. Just look at how ineffective hate speech laws have been in fighting the perceptible rise in racist ideology in recent years.
While Canadians were lost in a fog of soul-searching set off by the terror arrests, few people seemed to notice that our hate speech law showed itself once again to be a lame duck.
Last week, David Ahenakew had his conviction for wilfully promoting hatred overturned on appeal. Ahenakew, a prominent First Nations leader, had made a number of anti-Semitic comments during a speech and a follow-up interview with a Saskatoon Star Phoenix reporter.
He suggested that Jews were a "disease" set to "dominate" the world and that Hitler had "cleaned up a hell of a lot of things." A new trial was ordered on the grounds that the original trial judge erred in not considering whether Ahenakew's words were spoken with the intent to spread hatred or in anger, in response to an argumentative and baiting reporter.
The court was judging a man who asserted that a Hitlerian "final solution" is a social good, yet it was ambivalent about criminalizing this speech because the speaker may have been angry and provoked into uttering anti-Semitic nonsense.
I have never heard bigotry born of gentle good will. Ultimately, the law stood face to face with raw bigotry and didn't know what to do with it.
In upholding the constitutionality of our hate literature law in 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada struggled with the knowledge that pre-Nazi Germany also had hate literature laws.
A great genocide occurred in the face of the rule of law, despite the existence of criminal prohibitions on the dissemination of hateful messages.
We know that law can rarely change the way a person thinks, especially when that thinking is all mixed up with delusion, and in trying to use the law as a tool of coercive persuasion there is always the danger that we will elevate the stupid into the esteemed role of martyrs for other stupid people.
When we send the bigot to jail to sit and stew, the suffering is often used by the bigot to reinforce the righteousness of delusional views.
Terrorists may believe they are acting on a legitimate sense of grievance, but they are no different than the conventional racist in that both deliberately short-circuit their brains in order to massage a crippling and neurotic need to hate. The psychological solace gained by projecting hatred outward comes at a great price - the destruction of the gift of rationality. This is why the rationality of the law and conventional morality have little deterrent effect on these types of crimes.
I'm not saying anti-terrorism and anti-hate laws are entirely useless. There must be a legal regime that provides law enforcement officials effective tools to investigate and apprehend terrorists. The international flavour of terrorism presents unique enforcement problems, and thus the legal response to this problem will differ in some respects from domestic law enforcement.
But it's naive to believe that we will all be safe if we just give up some of our liberty in search of security. If we're not careful, our civil liberties will be extinguished. We will never be safe until we understand how hatred can become a cornerstone of political and religious thought.
It has taken this current threat to our collective security, whether real or imagined, to compel us to finally explore the reality of ideologically driven hate in Canada.
As much as we are currently interested in the story of how the 17 young men arrested for a terror plot became transformed into extremists, we will only be able to understand this sinister transformation if we also try to understand how Ahenakew became rabidly anti-Semitic.
There may be many different objects of hate, but at its core all hatred, whether based upon racial, religious or ethnic characteristics, is just a variation of the same disease.
Just as some cancers require invasive surgery, the hate crime needs intrusive measures, but these need to be community-based.
We need to develop viable political strategies to respond to extremist ideology and to counter the inevitable vigilante backlash from those who fail to see the difference between a Muslim and an extremist who distorts the noble teachings of the religion.
With open dialogue and debate within the community it may be possible to stem the rising tide of hatred. Then there will be little need to resort to anti-terrorism laws or to continue to relinquish our civil liberties for a brief shimmer of security.
Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week.