The challenges of calling any act of violence ‘terrorism’

‘Terrorism’ means many different things to many different people.

OTTAWA, CANADA — An ongoing prosecution in Toronto has a lot of people talking these days. A 17-year old (a minor under Canadian law who cannot be named) who was originally charged with first degree murder and attempted murder in a February stabbing at an erotic massage parlour has now had those charges changed to murder/attempted murder ‘with terrorist activity’. The Crown, upon further investigation by the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) in Toronto, alleges that the youth killed a 24-year old woman and injured a 30-year old female.

The decision to go the terrorism legal route has led to all kinds of commentary by academics – legal and terrorism scholars – and even a nod of approval by Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair (who used to be the Chief of Police in Toronto). Whatever transpires, this is the first time in Canada a terrorism charge for an act of violence has been leveled on someone who is NOT an Islamist extremist.

This last point is what is driving some of the positive reaction, in my opinion. Many have criticised the Canadian government for seeing terrorism as a crime planned or committed ONLY by Muslims. Many were critical when Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed a half dozen at a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017, was NOT charged with terrorism. I have also read several comments by women activists saying it is about time that violence directed against women be called what it is – terrorism. And there is absolutely no question that this form of violence has been around forever and does not get the attention – or the seriousness – it has always deserved.

But is it terrorism?

No ideology, no political motive

To me, there is no way you can call the vast majority of partner violence terrorism: there is no ideology, no political motive. It is violence pure and simple. If we go down that road then we risk calling everything terrorism and by extent nothing is terrorism.

When it comes to the incel ‘movement’ – the youth in Toronto is allegedly one (how can a 17-year old be so sexually frustrated to join this gang?) – it is murkier. I will leave the debate over whether this constitutes an ‘ideology’ to those who know this scene better, but I do think it is important to distinguish between hate and terrorism. All terrorism is imbued with hate but not all hate is terrorism. My sense is that the actions of incels, or at least those who actually act rather than just post drivel online, constitute a hate crime (some would argue that what they say does as well). It is also clearly misogynist, despite the fact that the whole incel idea came from a woman in Toronto (demonstrating that these losers do not even recognise their own history).

We have the tools in Canadian law to deal with hate. Judges have the latitude to pronounce longer sentences for crimes determined to be hateful in nature. Would it not be easier to use that strategy? What if the Crown fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this murder was indeed inspired by incel ideas? Does the case fail?

The debate over what to call terrorism is an eternal one. Where incels fit in, if they do, will also go on for a while.

There is more. If we treat incel as terrorism we then put more work on the plate of CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service), whose mandate under section 2c) of the CSIS Act covers terrorism. Do we really want to do that? I happen to know that the agency is already working flat out as it is. Would it not be better to leave this as a purely criminal matter (for it is most definitely a crime)?

One more thing. Incel acts fall under what the government is calling ‘ideologically-motivated violent extremism’ (IMVE). What the hell does that mean (the term did not exist when I worked at CSIS)? How is this term any different than terrorism which is defined under the Canadian Criminal Code as ‘serious violence perpetrated for ideological (or political or religious) reasons’? What do we gain by using this term?

The debate over what to call terrorism is an eternal one. Where incels fit in, if they do, will also go on for a while. I think we need to consider this very carefully. We can deal in an appropriate way with the social ill that is violence against women without resorting to slapping a terrorism label on it.

Phil Gurski
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