"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Monday, September 30, 2013

A resolute search for justice

In the summer of 2006, I wrote a story for the Western Standard magazine about a Vancouver dentist's attempt to win the right to launch civil suits against terrorist groups. The dentist, Sherri Wise, had special motivation: she was a victim of a terrorist bomb in 1997 while volunteering at a Jerusalem dental clinic for underprivileged children.
Today, I was pleased to read in a story on the front page of the National Post that Dr. Wise has launched a suit against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which supported the terrorist group (Hamas) that was responsible for the attack. The notice of claim was filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday. It is the first case to be filed in Canada under this country's new anti-terrorism legislation. I sincerely hope Dr. Wise is successful.
Dr. Sherri Wise. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)
Here's the text of my 2006 story. The photo to the right is one I took of Dr. Wise during our meeting seven years ago.

A new arrow in the quiver                 
Canadian victims push for a law to allow civil suits against terrorist groups


It’s a typical tourist snapshot. Three friends, sitting around a table at an outdoor restaurant, pose for a photographer, their broad smiles filling the frame. Three friends: oblivious to the fact that, as their happy moment in Jerusalem was being captured for posterity, three Palestinian suicide bombers were on their way to the Beth Yehuda pedestrian mall in which they were sitting. Within an hour, all three would be injured, their lives scarred by the memory of that afternoon nine years ago.

The blasts, which took place at 2 p.m., September 4, 1997, killed five innocent victims as well as the bombers, and injured a total of 181 people. Sherri Wise, posing in the middle of the picture, was one of the survivors. Today, the smile still seems to come easily to the face of the Vancouver dentist, who was celebrating the successful end of a month’s volunteer work in the Israeli city when the attack took place. Wise, now 36, suffered terrible injuries—second- and third-degree burns to 40 per cent of her body, shrapnel wounds to her foot and legs, temporary hearing impairment, and the loss most of her hair—but she’s fully recovered now, save the scars she bears, both physical and emotional. “I tend to be a little sad around the anniversary, but with time, time does heal all wounds to a degree,” she says. “And the memories of it tend to fade.”

But while memories may fade, Wise’s determination to do something in response to the terror attack continues to grow. Wise is part of a small but resolute group of Canadians trying to persuade the federal government to enact legislation allowing terror survivors and the families of terror victims to launch civil suits against foreign states or domestic groups that have supported terrorist organizations responsible for killing or injuring Canadians. While in opposition last year, Conservative MP Stockwell Day introduced a private-member’s bill to allow such suits, but the bill died before being voted on. Day is now minister of public safety. He did not respond to several requests for an interview on the issue.

Three new private-member’s bills on the same subject are currently before Parliament, one in the Senate and two in the House of Commons. Of the three, the one introduced by Sen. David Tkachuk, a Conservative from Saskatchewan, has proceeded the furthest, to second-reading debate, which took place in late June. The two bills introduced into the House of Commons, by Liberal MP Susan Kadis of Ontario and Tory MP Nina Grewal of B.C., have yet to be debated.

“There’s very active lobbying on my part and on other victims of terrorism for the proposed law to get the attention that it deserves,” says Maureen Basnicki of Toronto, a founding member of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror, the main group pushing for the law. Basnicki, whose husband Ken was killed in the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001, is passionate about the cause. “You know, our general [Rick] Hillier once said that Canadian troops were in Afghanistan to kill scum bags,” she says. “I would like to see the ability to sue some scum bags. And that’s my description of them, really. I’m not offended by that at all.”

The U.S. amended its laws in 1996 and 1997 to allow such suits in that country, but there are two impediments to similar actions in Canada: first, the State Immunity Act protects foreign states from lawsuits; second, legal experts say no clear procedure exists for litigants to sue terrorists or their organizations. The bills currently before Parliament would level those roadblocks, but it’s not known if the government will throw its weight behind the legislation. That doesn’t mean the government is standing still in the fight against terrorism, though. On July 7, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that Ottawa would spend $5 million over the next five years to establish a new permanent headquarters in Toronto for the Egmont Group, the world’s anti-money-laundering agency whose work is increasingly aimed at fighting terrorist organizations.
Speaking at a conference in New York in January, international defence expert Peter Leitner said there’s ample justification for the federal government to amend its laws to support the civil suits against terrorists. “There is something fundamentally absurd with the current legal arrangements in Canada that allows lawsuits against Iran for selling you rotten pistachios, but bars legal action against them for sponsoring terrorist acts which kill Canadian citizens abroad,” he said.

Similarly, Toronto’s Alastair Gordon, president of the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, believes the civil-suit legislation would be of great value in the fight against terrorism. “There is no single tool which will deal with the worldwide phenomenon of Islamist terrorism,” he says. “The criminal justice system is one tool, the civil courts are another tool, and of course, the armed forces are yet another tool. It is a crime of omission to deny Canadians that second tool.” Wise, for one, hopes Parliament is quick to give Canadians this tool. “I think that Canadian citizens need to know their government is behind them,” she says.

Parliament resumes sitting September 18, just a week after the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. To victims of terror and their families, there could be few more apt tributes to those who died on that day than for Parliament to pass the civil-suit legislation before year’s end.  

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