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How NOT to deal with violent extremism

Canadians expect their leaders to stand up against terrorism, not engage in philosophical speeches about ‘yelling fire in a crowded theatre’ in the aftermath of an attack.

The Canadian government seems to have lost its ability to call terrorism what it is.

Poor Justin Trudeau! The Prime Minister who came to office in 2016 after a decade of Conservative rule seemed to usher in an era of change, as is wont in Canadian politics. He was young, handsome, the son of a former leader and, as he himself said, the harbinger of ‘sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways’.

My how the weather has changed! The last few years have been tough on him and his team. Yes, the Liberals were re-elected, albeit this time with a minority government, in 2019, but the party has been ridden with scandals and own goals of late, of which the WE debacle is perhaps merely the best known. Canada’s ‘natural governing party’ appears to be making rather a mess of things.

President Trump welcomes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 2017.
Well, compared to the guy on the right ANYONE looks good! (Photo: Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)

In fairness, all governments which become long in the tooth suffer from this malaise. Whether it is arrogance, laziness or just the trappings of power, the number of examples of Canadian governments which seem to go off the rails is high indeed. It is not, therefore, unusual for this government to suffer the same fate.

Yet, some errors seem mindbogglingly unnecessary at the best of times. One such boner is the Prime Minister’s response to the beheading of a French teacher over the infamous Muhammad cartoons, satirical – some would say blasphemous – depictions of Islam’s founding Prophet. When asked about freedom of speech and expression, here is what our leader had to say: “Freedom of expression is not unlimited. For example, it’s not allowed to cry ‘fire’ in a packed cinema. In a respectful society such as ours, everyone must be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others. There are communities experiencing huge discrimination in Canada today. So yes, we will always defend freedom of expression, but everyone must act respectfully toward others and not try to needlessly or arbitrarily hurt someone we share this planet and society with.”

To summarise, his retort to the brutal slaying of an educator who was trying to introduce a controversial, but crucial, topic to students was to ignore this man’s cruel death and shower us with platitudes about the need to be ‘nice’ with one another.

To his credit

He did change his response a few days later when his initial words were roundly criticised for papering over a heinous crime (“I think it is important to continue defending freedom of expression, freedom of speech. Artists help us reflect and challenge our views and they contribute to our society and we will always continue to defend freedom of expression.”), but some would label this ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ or a mere sheepish attempt to correct an egregious error and missed opportunity to condemn terrorism.

In a way, part of what he said was, and is, indeed relevant. In a world full of hate, aggression and violence – our neighbours to the south have provided ample illustration of all of this over the past four years (if not longer) – it is necessary to remind ourselves that wanton discrimination and disrespect does not help any of us. After far too long, we in Canada are addressing racism and bias and all decent Canadians want to see progress on these matters. It is also true that Muslims have been subject to such treatment, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

There is, however, a time and a place for this conversation. That time and place is NOT days after a self-styled ‘Muslim warrior’ elected to kill a man in cold blood for the simple reason that he felt offended by a cartoon. I am not dismissing the sense of offence felt by many Muslims over these caricatures, merely the fashion of channeling that offence. Dialogue, debate and deep disagreement are acceptable: sawing someone’s head off is not.

The Prime Minister blew it.

His initial (not secondary) response should have been an unfettered, unconditional support for the freedoms we have won through the loss of much blood and treasure and the absolute rejection of violence to make a point. In that he disappointed us all. The time to talk about mutual respect and acceptance, a very important matter for us all, was afterwards, not as the victim was being prepared for burial.

Canadians expect their leaders to stand up against terrorism, not engage in philosophical speeches about ‘yelling fire in a crowded theatre’ in the aftermath of an attack. Our Prime Minister failed the test. I for one hope he has learned something from this experience and that his next performance will be better.

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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