As with gun violence in Canada so with terrorism

A lot of ink has been spilled of late (can we still talk of ‘ink spilled’ in the digital age?) about the gun violence wreaking havoc in Toronto. Other cities in Canada have similar, albeit smaller scale, problems although Toronto’s is getting much attention because of the death toll.  So far in 2018 there have been 200 ‘incidents’ involving guns that have led to 274 victims, including 25 deaths as of this weekend.

When spates of violence of this nature occur there is no shortage of ‘analysis’ and advice on what to do about it.  More police. Less police.  More money on social issues.  Bring back carding.  Solve economic disparity.  Drain the gang swamp. The list goes on and on and on.

There was a fascinating dichotomy in the Globe and Mail this weekend on the nature of the issue and what is at heart driving it.  One article stated categorically, based on studies both current and historical, that it is all about money, a sense of isolation, growing income disparity, lack of opportunities, poor levels of education, etc.  In other words, young men – for they are mostly young men although there is an increase in female involvement in violent crimes – are turning to gangs and guns because they are from the wrong side of the tracks and live a hopeless existence.  That seems to make sense, doesn’t it?

Except that other research in Surrey, BC found that gang members are not necessarily poor, do not belong to specific socioeconomic or ethnic group, but are driven by the search for material possessions and adventure.  Many come from affluent homes – this is being called ‘non-traditional’ in gang research circles.

So which one is it?  Is Toronto the model or Surrey?  Is it primarily about lack of opportunity and alienation?  Or not?  The correct answer is: all of the above.  Or perhaps better put: it depends.   There is a lot of variability.

The reason for this blog, which is of course a terrorism piece and not one on criminality, is that I have seen exactly the same explanations for why Canadians, or anyone else for that matter, radicalise to violence and engage in terrorism. It’s all about disenfranchisement.  Fix the economic system and you’ll stop radicalisation.  Stop ethnic profiling.  You get my point.  Except that it is wrong as I tried to illustrate in my first book The Threat from Within.

Just as addressing the causes which seem to be at play in Toronto will have little effect in Surrey, and vice versa, nor is there a one size fits all solution to terrorist radicalisation.  You’d think we would have realised that by now.  And yet I continue to read academic papers and op-eds and commentaries that purport to have come up with THE explanation and hence THE solution.  All of which may have part of the picture but not its entirety.

Here is the problem.  The social ills that plague us in the world are all very serious and need to be resolved (the fact that they have been with us since we came down from the trees millions of years ago should not deter us) but whatever we do does not guarantee that those ills will not still be with us.  We can, for instance, institute complete economic parity across all our nations and we would not eliminate gun violence or terrorism.  It is not as simple as that so let’s stop pretending it is.  Yes we must cease to do stupid shit that clearly is not working but identifying that stupid shit is a challenge.

When it comes to our approaches to violence I am reminded of the blind men and the elephant.  Here is a version of that story:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”

The lesson here is that everyone had a small piece of the puzzle but no one had the whole thing.  Partial descriptions, like partial solutions, are not the answer.  Pontificating that problem A has cause B is naive.  That, to me, is the elephant in the room.

PS as an aside can I say something in favour of police action?  Many blame police policies for  making the problem worse (i.e. carding), and there may be something to this.  After all no police officer is perfect.  But in the end we have police to stop bad things from happening.  Yes, ‘community policing’ is a great idea but our law enforcement neighbours have a mandate, and a moral duty I would add, to at the same time identify and apprehend those who intend to use lethal violence.  All the programs in the world, no matter how good they are, will not stop everyone: some people just want to kill and the police have the authority to prevent them from doing so, with lethal action if necessary.  Can we please stop laying the blame at their feet for everything?  To use another metaphor: before you slam the cops, walk a mile in their shoes.  You just might see things differently.

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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