On Monday evening, I had the honour of standing witness before the Special Senate Committee on Anti-terrorism in Ottawa. Speaking live by video conference from Zurich, Switzerland, I was invited to present my research on and discuss the issue of prison radicalization and terrorist recruitment. In the coming weeks, the Senate Committee will publish an official written transcript of my exchange and MLI will post a link to the video. In the interim, you can read my opening statement.
Standing before the Senate Committee was a privilege I hadn’t expected. Chaired by esteemed Senator Hugh Segal, the Committee was created in May 2010 and tasked to once again undertake a “comprehensive review of the provisions and operation of the Anti-terrorism Act and to study legislation related to anti-terrorism.” Over the past year, the Committee has convened every few weeks, gaining insight on the finer points of counterterrorism from both academics and security officials. Top Canadian terrorism experts, like Wesley Wark, Ronald Crelinsten, and Martin Rudner, and international experts, like Brian Michael Jenkins and Andrew Silke offered their respective insights on contemporary terrorist threats. Security officials from CSIS, the RCMP, DND, and Public Safety, along with representatives of Canada’s three biggest police departments, also stood before the Committee. [Follow the links I’ve provided for each to access their testimonies]
Given the company, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to participate. And as this was the first time I have given official, expert testimony to a government or parliamentary body, the exchange provided a learning experience. Here are two things that stood out.
First, I was understandably nervous to participate. While I’ve given countless conference presentations and seminar lectures, along with an assortment of professional and academic ‘talks’, the big difference on Monday was that every word was being recorded. In participating in the Senate hearings, I agreed to have my opening statement and Q&A session published, verbatim. Every word counted. In all of my past conference and seminar presentations, on the other hand, I could be sure that my oral exchanges wouldn’t leave the room. As far as know, nobody has yet cared enough to record my voice, and so all of my spoken exchanges have essentially been off-the-record and not reproducible. In one ear and out the door.
As a result, I’ve had absolute and pre-emptive control over the representation of my scholarly work and academic record. In preparing written documents and circulating conference papers, lecture notes, and speeches in advance of my presentations, I’ve been able to shape how my audience would remember and recall the oral discussion. The only record of my engagement was the written document. Any verbal flub or buffoonery went unrecorded and would eventually be forgotten.
Not so on Monday. Everything was on record. In the 50 minutes of Q&A, the Senators were in partial control of my academic and personal record. While Senators aren’t in the business of purposefully cornering witnesses and I do of course have a certain amount of verbal self-control, there was always a risk that I would get flustered, misspeak, offer incorrect information, or let fly an errant f-bomb.
Here’s part of one exchange from the hearing that I’d rather take back.
Senator Mobina Jaffer: You said that Canadians face fewer threats from terrorism. Is there something that we are doing correctly? How can we prevent home-grown terrorists?
Alex Wilner: Senator, if I had the answer to that, I’d be rich.
OK — it’s not like I dropped the ball exactly. But still: “I’d be rich”? It’s a little cheeky and not terribly professional. If I remember correctly, the response did elicit a few chuckles, but I’ll have to review the tapes to be sure. And isn’t that exactly the kicker? There are tapes and recordings and official, government-stamped written transcripts of everything I said. That’s something new … and a little frightening.
Second, as I mentioned, my testimony was given by video conference. The technology is truly amazing: despite a yawning of several thousand kilometres, a span of seven time zones, and a trans-Atlantic signal, the conversation was crisp, continuous, and in real-time. With a large, split-screen in front of me, I could watch the senators, individually and as a group, as they spoke while keeping an eye on my own video at the left-hand corner of the monitor. The Senators, too, each had a large flat-screen of me in front of them.
And yet, it all began with what I can only describe as a partial rip in the time/space continuum. During my 15-minute opening statement I was alone in a small dark room, sitting at a desk, speaking into a microphone, looking up on a 2-second delayed video of myself giving a speech! The Senators’ microphones had been switched off and the split-screen hadn’t yet been engaged. I couldn’t hear anything except for the faint feedback of my own voice and my picture filled both the main box and the smaller inset of the television screen. It was spooky. Only afterwards did an unseen hand bring the Senators back to life.
In the end, I had fun at the hearing. Not only did the invitation reaffirm the fact that somebody, somewhere was actually reading my research, but I found the Senators an engaging and well-informed bunch. They asked some tough questions, but in doing so they proved that they understood the promises and pitfalls of modern counterterrorism. Their mandate is a crucially important one. It was my honour to take part.