Let’s just call it terrorism

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There are few debates I consider less constructive than the indeterminable bleating over what does and does not constitute terrorism.

It’s, perhaps, a more productive quibble than whether or not we ought to de-gender the national anthem, but marginally less useful than endless back-and-forth banter over whether the Prime Minister will resign.

That is to say: on the spectrum of important national discussions to be had in this country, whether or not we should use the word “terrorism” to define last week’s attacks on Canadian Forces personnel is pretty near the god dang bottom.

There is an element in this country dead-set on the idea that one, or both, of last week’s attacks were not the product of an international campaign to bring war to Canada’s territory, but instead the product of addiction, mental illness, and disaffection.

To those people, respectfully: you’re tilting at windmills.

Yes, mental illness is a factor.  Obviously.  But there is probably a bipolar insurgent driving around Baghdad with a car full of explosives and a headful of undiagnosed mental illness.  That doesn’t make him any less a terrorist, nor does it absolve his subsequent attack of its intended impact of terrifying and intimidating the population.

So when we talk about Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, we can’t merely take one aspect of their life and ignore the rest.  We can’t, and shouldn’t, take Zehaf-Bibeau’s drug use and stretch it to cover his actions, ignoring his obvious radicalization, just as we can’t look at Couture-Rouleau’s failed business enterprise and negate his obvious turn to violent Islam.

It feels quite strongly as though those who wish to do exactly that — to commit sociology, as it’s been phrased — do so with political motives.  The goal, there, is to undercut any excuse the government may have to bestow on itself more powers, or to head-off any effort to conflate this contorted, bastardized version of Islam with the real religion.  That is, these armchair sociologists are looking for a way out of the nasty atmosphere that created both a wave of hate crimes, and the Patriot Act.

Those are both pretty laudable goals, but to try and accomplish them by resisting calling a spade, a spade, is wrongheaded.

The fact is, the country feels attacked.  Two individuals, adhering to a belief propagated by our enemies, opened fire not just on our national institutions, but on the men and women who are sworn to protect them.

I’m not much for jingoism, and you could even call me a lousy patriot, but it strikes me that any effort to target the facets of a state at the behest of a group sworn to destroy us is a pretty prime example of terrorism.

And to that end, it’s why last week’s attacks rest in a different category than, say, a school shooting.  The events at Columbine were personal — disgruntled teens shooting the schoolmates and teachers who, in their eyes, made life hell.

Here, the two radicalized Canadians were trying to kill men they didn’t know in order to bring war to Canadian soil.

Now, other comparisons have been drawn to Justin Bourque, and his effort to kill as many New Brunswick police as possible.  Is that terrorism?  Sure, why not.

Like I said, I loathe this debate.  I’m engaging in it now, only with the hope that we can get on the same page and avoid ever having it again.

So, with Bourque, he evidently committed an act of violence with the express purpose of advancing his paranoid, anti-state beliefs.  To that end, calling it terrorism is probably a pretty safe bet.

But what made last week’s attacks even more clear-cut examples of the new form of terror that we’re facing is that they were directed by ISIS.

Many recoil when I write that.  There is, of course, no solid proof that either attacker had direct contact with the terrorists in Syria or Iraq.  What’s brilliant, and particularly odious, about ISIS is that they didn’t have to.

ISIS’ ideology is the exact sort of anti-state propaganda that worms its way into the heads of troubled and disaffected youth, and encourages them to kill in the name of a religion to which they have no other connection.

ISIS looks powerful.  It has terrified and ruffled the West in the way that other terrorist groups have not.  Osama Bin Laden was an old man who hid in a cave and issued dry theocratic edicts.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims an expanding empire, and invites followers world-wide to join his crusade.

And, in a very literal way, al-Baghdadi’s high-tech thugs allow any idiotic with a modem to download his ideology.  Like a virus, those instructions to attack and kill symbols of the state take root in otherwise docile Canadians.

We used to be worried about sleeper cells — small groups that would blend into society, only to spring into action once a beacon is activated and kill civilians.  Now, these self-radicalized individuals turn themselves into sleeper cells, and they could be activated at any time.  That’s what makes them so dangerous.

To this end, there’d undoubtedly be little substantive difference between an attack directly and privately ordered by ISIS, and an attack that came about because of a public instruction from the group — like the call they made earlier this month to attack Canadian soldiers.

And the practical effect of these attacks is that people feel pretty damn terrified.  I know, because I was absolutely terrified as a crouched below a low wall in Parliament, having just been told that a gunmen was roaming the halls.

But critics of calling this ‘terrorism’ are right: governments use events like this to bestow themselves more power.  They do so out of helplessness, and an urgent need to fix the regime that all0wed such a thing to happen.  But decision making based on emotion is, of course, not always sound.

To that end, just because we accept that an attack is terrorism does not mean that we should lay down as our government steamrolls our civil liberties.  We should recognize the need to prevent these attacks without heading down a slippery slope towards a system where we sacrificed the very thing that we long to defend.

And, of course, in recognizing that a form of violent Islam facilitated this attack, we mustn’t let ourselves believe that Islam itself is to blame.  It can’t be.  The main victims of ISIS are Muslims.  And when the radicals activated by ISIS here at home open fire at our Canadian Forces, there is a very substantial chance that they will be firing at a fellow Muslim.

But those two realities —that we need to fight against both oppressive government surveillance and against xenophobia — do not become clearer or easier because we call this a random act of violence, instead of what it truly is.

Addendum: There is, by the way, a definition of terrorism in the Criminal Code.

“an act or omission, in or outside Canada, that is committed: (A) in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and, (B) in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, whether the public or the person, government or organization is inside or outside Canada, and causes death or serious bodily harm to a person by the use of violence.”

There’s more to the definition.  You can find it here.

Photo Credit: National Post

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OTHER ARTICLES BY JUSTIN LING

Everything you need to know about Canada’s mission against ISIS
We don’t want to go to war, say opposition parties

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7 Responses to “Let’s just call it terrorism”

  1. Scott Vrooman

    The problem with the definition you cited is that it often fits the actions of our allies, allies that happen to have states and armies. Nonetheless, it fits. We can’t claim to fight terrorism while tolerating our allies partaking in it.

    Reply
  2. catherine maneker

    Thanks. Good article……..I know I feel more fear and dread after last weeks terrorist attacks. That is the purpose, isn’t it. I also am annoyed and embarassed that there is even a debate about this. As if calling it mental illness somehow makes it different?

    Reply

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