Should we “celebrate” the death of terrorists?

In the ill-named “war on terror” small victories, let alone crushing ones, are hard to find.  It seems that no matter how many terrorists we kill more rise up like the warriors that sprang from dragon’s teeth in Greek mythology and we see more attacks (one more today in Jerusalem).  So it is little wonder that we celebrate the kills we make perhaps out of fear that the sheer number of setbacks will lead us to despair.

Remember May 2, 2011?  That was the day that President Obama announced that US Special Forces had found and killed Al Qaeda leader and brains behind 9/11 Osama bin Laden.  Remember the aftermath?  Newspaper headlines shouted “Got him!”.  People in Lafayette Park across from the White House danced and sang, shouting “USA! USA! USA!”  A cathartic moment indeed for the US people.

Time magazine published a cover some years back with a photo of a particularly nasty terrorist, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, with a big red X superimposed to mark the successful targeting and elimination of a man who was a thorn in the side of the US and Iraq.  Nary a week goes by without some senior official claiming a “huge blow” to a terrorist group when a senior operative is killed.

So, feeling good about making one terrorist a former threat makes sense, doesn’t it?  Yet on another level it feels empty.  Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that in many cases the only reliable solution to terrorism is to kill terrorists.  Intervention and mentoring and counter radicalisation may work sometimes but at others we must take lives.  This may sound harsh but it is reality.

But I still get uneasy when I read about those who seem to derive pleasure from seeing those they have killed.  Case in point Dillon Hillier, a Canadian who fought with the Kurds against Islamic State and who has written a book on his experiences (full disclosure: I have not read the book but intend to do so).  In his memoir, Mr. Hillier wrote that he was “proud that I killed jihadis in Kurdistan. At some level they were men, just like me, but at the same time they were something entirely different. They belonged to one of the most vile and sadistic groups the world has ever known.”

I do not intend to question Mr. Hillier’s motivations for going to fight in Iraq – they seem noble to me.  And I will not rehash the arguments I have previously made about the complicated nature of allowing Canadians to fight with other forces abroad, including some which may host terrorist groups themselves.  But there is something wanting about his pride at having shot jihadis, isn’t there?  Is this something a person should be proud of?  Even without questioning the legality or morality of the act, is it not better to just say “it’s something I had to do – it’s not pretty but it was necessary”?

Call me a wimp, call me squeamish, I don’t care.  It’s just that I think we debase ourselves a bit when we share the same joy at killing that the criminals of IS do.  They celebrate their triumphs with graphic videos.  I am not accusing Mr. Hillier of that level of evil, but nonetheless cannot support his apparent satisfaction with what he did.

Getting to the point where we celebrate death is not a good thing.  After all, the terrorists love to remind us that they “love death as you love life”.  Not a good mindset to share, is it?


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