Why can’t we see terrorism as a crime?

One of the main reasons I like to lecture at universities is that I find young people a breath of fresh air.  They are not as jaded as old farts like me and are not afraid to ask questions and challenge assumptions.  They may not be that knowledgeable on any given topic but they are keen to learn.

I had an amazing time yesterday at the University of Ottawa talking to a graduate seminar on terrorism as a favour to my friend Dr. Thomas Juneau.  The students asked some good questions and raised some good points and one in particular said something that really struck me.  He raised the issue of why we treat terrorism separately and why we don’t look it as just another form of crime.

So, why don’t we?

This student was not the first to point this out.  During the 2004 US Presidential campaign John Kerry famously said that the US had to mature in its response to terrorism so that what was then (and, sadly, today) being handled mostly with a military stick had to be left to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.  In other words, we needed to treat terrorism as we do other criminal acts and stop giving it the attention it craves.

Mr. Kerry was roundly criticised by many, including President Bush, for dishonouring the memory of those that died on 9/11.  The implication was that we were at war with terrorism and that wars by definition demand military responses.

Terrorism is of course a crime since it is murder, albeit for ideological reasons.  We have enough laws to cover crimes like murder and yet we still created a separate series of offences in our criminal code to deal with terrorism (in Canada that would be sections 83.01ff of the Canadian Criminal Code).

The problem with the argument that we should see terrorism as everyday crime is twofold.  Firstly, it is not an everyday crime, unless you happen to be a citizen of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and a few other unfortunate places.  Secondly, our populations respond to terrorism differently that they do to ordinary criminal activity and their expectations are higher.

Terrorism terrorises people in ways that run-of-the-mill crime does not.  We accept a certain background level of violent crime – provided it is not too high – and don’t tend to alter our life patterns because of it.  Terrorism elicits a very different reaction: people do things like cancel travel and give in to populists like Donald Trump in irrational ways that are completely disproportionate to the threat level because of fear.

Citizens also demand a 100% success rate in terrorist cases.  We seem to acknowledge that police will not prevent every murder or assault but we do not accept anything but perfection when it comes to terrorism.  When the odd attack succeeds we scream “intelligence failure” and launch inquiries.  Can you imagine doing either in the case of a murder?

This dichotomy is naturally not defendable if you think about it. Nevertheless it exists and will likely continue to do so.  That is why so many groups have resorted to terrorism across the centuries to make their points via violence.  While very few groups end up victorious in their cause they can be considered successful insofar as their agendas are on the table and they garner state and societal responses that far outweigh their acts of violence.

It is probable that we will continue to see terrorism as special and hence a scourge that requires a special approach.  It is indeed hard to see the day where acts of terrorism warrant no more attention than a stabbing or a shooting in a place like Ottawa’s Byward Market.  And as long as terrorists realise this they will stay on course to do more damage.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply