The fine line between hate and terrorism: murder is murder

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on February 12, 2017


We in Canada have, thankfully, few dates that will ‘live in infamy’ to cite former US President Roosevelt in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor (9/11 would fit into this category as well).  When it comes to Canada I suppose many would cite the École Polytechnique massacre on December 6, 1989 when 14 women were killed by a gunman.  The Air India terrorist attack of June 23, 1985 should be up there as well as it was the largest single terrorist attack prior to 9/11 but it does not seem to have resonated as much, perhaps because the aircraft went down off the coast of Ireland and not in Canada where the bombs were manufactured and placed in the luggage hold.  There may be other dates that slip my mind at this point and I apologise if I have missed any major ones.

To this mercifully short list we now have to add January 29th of last year when a gunman entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire, killing six.  This was truly a horrific act of violence perpetrated in a place of worship against innocent people and it is hoped that the young man behind it will serve many years in prison for his crime.

There is, however, a continuing debate on what this tragedy means, what we learned from it, how we have reacted to it and what, if anything, we have done to try to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.  One of the most contentious issues remains what to call the massacre.  For some, it falls squarely in the terrorism sphere.  For others it is a mass murder.  Those that believe it to be terrorist in nature probably feel that those who won’t call it terrorism have some kind of double standard when it comes to acts of this kind.  Terrorism, it may seem to some, only happens when the victims are white people.

As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out on this case (literally and figuratively).  The Crown has not, to the best of my knowledge, laid charges  under the terrorism provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code to date.  The accused has been charged with six counts of first degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.  Further charges are possible of course but there are in fact good reasons NOT to try the accused under Section 83.01 of the Criminal Code (the section that deals with terrorism).

Firstly, the Code outlines very specific criteria under which a terrorist offence has been committed.  It is not clear, at least not yet, that this particular crime fits the definition.  In addition, the extra burden of proof on the Crown to prove an ideological link to the motive implies that the case may not be strong enough for a terrorist focus and it is possible that the prosecution could fail.  Would that be an acceptable result?  I would think not.

There seems little doubt that the shootings were not random but were motivated by hatred towards a specific group.  This puts the act squarely in the realm of a hate crime, as I understand it.  There is a separate part of the Code that deals with offences of this nature and even there an extra level of proof is required.  Again, is it worth risking an acquittal to prove the hate factor?

Any reasonable Canadian would acknowledge that hate is a problem in this country and that Islamophobia is a subset of this atmosphere of hate.  Much more has to be done to deal with these unacceptable views and we need to collectively act to undermine the messages of the hate mongers.  We need to pick our battles however and deploy our resources where we will gain the most benefit.

It is highly likely that the perpetrator will be found guilty and that he will serve a very long time in a Canadian prison.  Is it really that important that he be found guilty of terrorism or a hate crime?  Would a finding along those lines really make a difference (it may within some Muslim communities)?  In the end, murder is murder and the decision to proceed with a terrorism (or hate) prosecution is dictated by the nature of the crime and the chances of a successful prosecution , not the colour of skin of either the gunman or his victims.

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.

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