This article is by a friend of mine who wrote a wonderful paper, and was even kind enough to quote me at one point. She has kindly given me permission to reprint her paper here.

Should Governments Tolerate the Actions of Dissent Groups?


By Jai Cummins

I believe that governments should tolerate the actions of dissident groups, but only to a certain point. When dissident groups commit acts of violence, they have made themselves terrorists and the government should do all that it can to remove them and provide the most severe punishment available under the law for their members.

I think that it is important that a clear distinction is made between dissent, subversion, terrorism and civil disobedience -- all terms which have become synonymous with dissident groups, and how they are used in this essay. In the strictest sense of the word, dissent is nothing more than disagreement with the government and on its own, is something that everyone does, openly or not. Subversion is "...[activities] directed towards the undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow... [the] government in Canada." [1] Terrorism is the use of terror and violence against the government in an attempt to force their hand. Finally, civil disobedience is "a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government." [2]

There are two major schools of thought on the issue of dissident groups. The first believes that the government should tolerate the actions of dissident groups as long as they stay within the boundaries of dissidence or civil disobedience. The underlying assumption of this view is that "we should tolerate dissent groups because it is in fringe subcultures that we find new ideas and concepts which cause a nation to continue to grow and thrive, both economically and socially." [3] The second opinion on the matter is that dissident groups should not be tolerated, no matter if their activities are peaceful or violent. This is the opinion espoused by the Soviet Union and most other dictatorships. It stems from the belief that needs of the individual should be secondary to the needs of the state and that dissent has no legitimate place in society.

At first the actions of the growing separatist movement in Quebec was tolerated. Though the movement threatened the security of the nation in some senses, it was well within the category of lawful advocacy, protest and dissent as set out by the Canadian Security Intelligence Services Act (CSIS Act) and protected by the Fundamental Freedoms of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On October 5, 1970 however, the FLQ (Front du Liberation de Quebec), a group of separatist extremists crossed the line between civil disobedience and terrorism when they kidnapped James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner. Five days later they kidnapped a second man, Pierre Laporte, Quebec's labour minister. The FLQ made demands for the release of both men including ransom money, transportation to Cuba, the release of "political prisoners" who were in actuality FLQ members previously jailed for terrorist bombings, and the reading of the FLQ Manifesto over national television networks. Faced with the growing crisis in his province Robert Bourassa turned to the federal government for help. Pierre Elliot Trudeau took decisive action for the good of the country and, for the first time in peacetime, he invoked the War Measures Act, which revoked the civil rights of Canadians. He stated that the use of the act was justified because the October Crisis was "the beginning of a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the government." The act made FLQ membership a crime and banned political rallies. Police swept across the province arresting anyone suspected of belonging to the FLQ and conducting thousands of searches. Though in the end Pierre Laporte was killed, James Cross found and the four hundred plus arrests resulted in less than 20 convictions, the decisive actions of the government broke the back of the FLQ and restored peace to a dissident movement that continues to this day.

A similar circumstance was faced by the West German government in the late 1960's and through the majority of the 1970's, though the government's rather lenient approach to the situation stands in stark contrast to the Canadian government's reaction. The Baader-Meinhof Gang, founded by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, were a group of dissident students who believed that their government was repressive and fascist. This belief alone was nothing more than dissidence and was tolerated by the government. However, in 1968 with the protest bombing of two department stores in Frankfurt the Baader-Meinhof Gang became publicly known by their chosen name, the Red Army Faction (RAF), a group of urban guerrillas and terrorists.

The terrorist acts of the RAF were widespread, but despite numerous arrests the government failed to stop the attacks. In the late 1970's their activities reached a head. There was a long series of hostage takings, kidnappings, murders and bombings. Finally, in June and July of 1972, police captured and tried numerous members of the RAF, including its top members. But the violence did not end. RAF leaders in custody were still able to contact their comrades on the outside and the violence continued with barely a pause. In October 1977, Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa jet in a bid to win the freedom of the jailed leaders of the RAF, their allies. It was finally brought to the ground in Mogadishu, Somalia and stormed by the elite anti-terrorist unit GSG-9 from Germany. Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, all top members of the RAF who had been jailed on previous offences, saw this as the end of their organization and took their own lives in prison. The RAF though continued to live on into the 1980's and the 1990's until in 1998 a communiqué from the RAF to Reuters announced that the RAF had been officially disbanded.

Clearly the inaction of the German government prolonged the terrorist activities, while the actions of the Canadian government stopped the FLQ before their activities could cause more serious harm. If the German government had cracked down on the RAF in its infancy, it is unlikely that the violence would have lasted more than a year, saving both lives and money.

While most governments take a strong anti-terrorist stance, when it is dissidents within their own societies that have become violent the problem becomes even more complicated. The line between terrorism and dissidence can often blur to grey, especially when more than one faction of a dissident group is involved. Democratic governments have to ride a fine line in dealing with dissident movements. They do not want to appear authoritarian, but they must take care not to appear too liberal in dealing with terrorists and criminals either, as this can open the door to a host of other problems. Canada's response to the FLQ presents what is quite possibly the best approach to groups of that nature. The government response to the FLQ was swift and firm, but it was also fair and just according to the laws of the country. Dissent is a normal and essential part of government and for as long as that dissent never crosses into violence it must be allowed. Restricting the right to dissent restricts our rights and our very nature.


[1]: Canadian Security Intelligence Services Act. SectionII (back)

[2]: Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (back)

[3]: Collier, B., "Re: Dissent" E-mail to Jaimie Cummins [E-mail 2000, Feb. 22] (back)

Works Cited

Bay, Christian. "Civil Disobedience: The Inner and Outer Limits." Dissent and the State. Ed. C.E.S. Franks. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Eaton, Dianne and Garfield Newman, Eds. Canada: A Nation Unfolding. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1994.

Federation of American Scientists. (No Date). "Liberation Movements, Terrorist Organizations, Substance Cartels and Other Para-State Entities." Intelligence Resource Program. [Online 2000, Feb. 25]

Franks, C.E.S., ed. Dissent and the State. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Garigue, Philippe (No Date). "Quebec -- History". [Online 2000, Feb. 25]

Huffman, Richard (2000, Jan. 2). This is Baader-Meinhof. [Online 2000, Feb. 15]

Jai Cummins is a native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and is writing for a political economics class. She received a 100% on this paper.


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