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Security costs, handling of protests raise questions

A protestor jumps on an abandonned police car after clashes during a G20 protest in Toronto.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Despite the best efforts of radical protesters aptly called thugs, G20 security accomplished its most critical task. Summit work was conducted without disruption for the participants. But the same can hardly be said of its impact on the rest of us. The major disruption caused to the economic life of Canada's largest city, and the staggering cost of the summit to Canadians generally, raise serious questions about the future of such meetings, and invites serious reflection about how to host a G20 summit.

The sheer scale of the G20 - so many leaders accompanied by so many large entourages - makes it virtually impossible to host at a resort in the way that the G8 has often been in the past. Resort summits are much easier to secure against violent protests, and therefore limit the impact on people living and working nearby. In Huntsville, even the moose appear to have been nonplussed. The problem is there are very few places in the world outside of a major metropolis that can accommodate 10,000 delegates, 4,000 media, together with the security and ancillary hangers-on associated with a G20 summit.

That means the G20 will by necessity end up in large cities, a fertile environment for radicals, with plenty of support, places to hide and easy targets. The events in Toronto over the weekend proved as much, with retailers' windows smashed and two police cars torched. Downtown areas were rife with wanton violence, without justification, which accomplished nothing for the perpetrators.

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The police deserve praise for securing the summit site. Farther from the site, though, their success was less obvious. True there were no serious known injuries. True also the police showed too much restraint in dealing with the so-called Black Bloc, which ran amok.

The numbers of arrests ought to raise concern, especially as they appear to have involved few representatives of the truly violent, but rather a rag-tag bunch of other protesters, arrested not for vandalism, but for "breach of peace," a measure that does not result in a charge but which should be used with extreme caution against people who are behaving peacefully and merely asserting their rights to free expression.

It's important not to overstate what happened: too many windows were broken and cars destroyed, but the damage to property was neither massive nor widespread. Despite the mass police presence, Toronto did not become a "police state."

But the lesson is clear. World leaders need to meet in sufficiently large but flexible groups to tackle big collective challenges - Skype is no substitute for face-to-face contact. And they must be able to undertake their deliberations securely.

This is the major conundrum: only major cities can host such gatherings, but future G20 meetings should not produce another Toronto, with its great security costs, massive disruption, and temporarily curtailed freedoms.

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