If there is one thing I take pride in it is my commitment to speaking and writing only on matters on which I think I have something meaningful or useful to say. Our world is all too crammed with ‘instant experts’ willing to weigh in on just about anything, although more often than not they are probably more keen to further an agenda or push a personal campaign.
When I am asked by the media to go on air on a variety of things that have a security or intelligence nexus, which happens quite often by the way, I try to be careful in deciding when to say yes. True, I did spend more than three decades as an intelligence analyst for a variety of Canadian intelligence agencies, but that does not mean I have any special insight into everything in these spheres. I know little to nothing about weapons proliferation and only a smidgen more on counter intelligence, and as a result I tend to decline interviews on these (not always but usually). There are a tonne of people who know a lot more than I do on these subjects although far too few who like me worked in intel, are comfortable with going public, and have a unique perspective.
When it comes to violent extremism – i.e. terrorism – I am on more familiar ground and almost always say yes to the fifth estate. Even if my expertise is largely in the area of Islamist extremism I am comfortable talking about terrorism in general and have been trying to bone up on other types (far right, far left, nationalist, etc.). I hope that when I do contribute on these issues that contribution is relevant.
There are times, thankfully rare, when I wished I had said no. One such occasion was the van attack in Toronto last April and has been attributed to an ‘alleged’ (more on ‘alleged’ in a bit) incel Alek Minassian. In the aftermath of the attack I was quite adamant that I saw this as a serious crime, and possibly a hate crime, but not an act of terrorism as I did not think incels (or ‘involuntary celibates’ – men who are not getting enough sex and blame women) were terrorists and the incel ‘movement’ was not ideological in nature.
Boy did I get slammed on social media for saying that incel acts were not terrorist acts! I was accused of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance, not helped by my honest admission that prior to Mr. Minassian’s actions I had never heard the term incel before (what ever happened to my mantra to stick to what I know?). Not a shining moment to say the least.
I have since learned – and educated myself – that there is indeed an ‘ideology’ behind incelism (is that even a word?). As such, serious violence carried out in the name of this philosophy would qualify as terrorism under Canadian law (that Mr. Minassian has not actually been charged with terrorism is a different matter).
In keeping with my Catholic upbringing then, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. To a point. The outstanding question, however, is whether Mr. Minassian was indeed part of the so-called incel community. All we have so far is one FaceBook posting. One! Not a manifesto. Not a YouTube screed to the justified grievances of other incels. One. FaceBook. Posting.
In my world this does not qualify as an open and shut case. There is far more about the perpetrator that we do not know than what we do know. If you have any more relevant information on background and motive PLEASE call the court (the case will not be heard until 2020 so you have lots of time) to ensure that evidence can be submitted and an appropriate sentence applied to this heinous act (assuming of course that he is found guilty). If not, you might want to check your own biases.
I learned a few valuable lessons via this incident. First, never go on national radio/TV and say “I have never heard of X but I am certain X is not terrorism”. Second, continue to be open to new interpretations and new data and be willing to change your views when warranted. Third, hone that thick skin on social media in light of all those who will call you all kinds of names when they are sure you have screwed up.
Ever since I was a kid I loved to learn. I am still doing that everyday and looking forward to expanding my knowledge on a whole heap of things, including incels.