When irrational fear of terrorism begets ‘terrorism’

Now that Alexandre Bissonnette has pleaded guilty to killing six people (and wounding 19 others) at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017  and we are seeing at last some of the evidence mounted against him (largely his 911 call and his jail cell ‘confession’), we are getting a much clearer picture of why he did what he did, although we have to take into consideration his own post hoc rationalisation.  Interestingly, he has still not been charged with terrorist offences under the Canadian Criminal Code – a matter I will return to – but will nevertheless probably spend a very long time behind bars.  As he should.

What we have been led to believe to date can be summarised as follows:

a) Mr. Bissonnette claims that he has suffered from anxiety and depression since the age of 14;

b) He claims that his anxiety and concern for his family’s safety had increased in the months prior to his action due to his certainty that a terrorist attack would happen in Quebec, perpetrated by ‘Muslims’ or ‘immigrants’;

c) He apparently believed that by shooting up a mosque he was saving ‘hundreds of Canadians’ who would otherwise have died in an act of terrorism;

d) The attack may have coincided with the Trudeau government decision to take in refugees that the Trump government seemed to be trying to bar the gates to (I assume this is a reference to Syrian – and hence Muslim – refugees but it is not 100% obvious, at least to me).

So, what to make of all this?  A few things stand out.  As usual, I will stay away from the ‘mental illness’ angle.  I am not qualified to judge but, as I have said and written on many, many occasions, this ‘defence’ is used way too often.  In any event, does depression obviate guilt and intent (he was after all deemed fit to stand trial)?

Firstly, I am not really any closer to determining whether Mr. Bissonnette’s killing spree is terrorist in nature.  His act seems, at least to me, as a clear act of hate.  He targeted a specific group, appears to have sought them out and opened fire.  His victims were shot because they were Muslim, nothing more and nothing less.  Or it sure seems that way.  But is this terrorism?  Was his hate an ‘ideology ‘?  I don’t know.  Recall that all terrorism is hate but not all hate is terrorism.  In the end, does it really matter if he is incarcerated for murder and not terrorism?  Better and more comprehensive access to his social media activities might shed some light here.

Perhaps the most important new fact here is that Mr. Bissonnette carried out an act of mass violence because he sincerely feared that a terrorist attack was imminent.  He acted out of conviction and what he thought was a desire to protect his family.  He was tragically wrong on both counts.  The Muslims at prayer were not the bloodthirsty terrorists he imagined all Muslims to be.

What we cannot ignore is the very strong possibility that he was influenced by dangerous, inaccurate and hateful rhetoric about immigrants, about Muslims, and about Islam.  There are far too many people on the Web and social media who spread fiction about the threat Islam poses to the West and how Islam is an insidious fifth column that must be identified and neutralised.  On the contrary , it is language of this kind, which may be protected under the Charter (or under the US constitution), that we need to identify and neutralise.  It is feeding a small part of society that believes in conspiracy theory and/or vast international plots and may very well have contributed to the heinous act of January 2017 in that Quebec mosque.  No, I am not arguing for censorship but for reasonable agreement that material that calls for violence against others be removed (be it Islamist, far-right, far-left, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh or whatever form of extremism).

Mr. Bissonnette may see himself as a hero who proactively saved not only his family but all of Canada from a terrorist attack planned and perpetrated by people at prayer.  He is nothing of the sort.  He is a pathetic character, a murderer and fan of twisted reality.  He does not deserve anyone’s praise but everyone’s opprobrium.  In light of the criminal acts to which he has openly confessed he must serve the maximum required time in prison to ensure he and others like him are not allowed to ‘protect’ us in the fantasy world he inhabits.

If there is any irony to the unnecessary deaths of six people and the disastrous effect on the lives of many, many more it is that in taking guns to a house of worship with a view to preventing future violence Mr. Bissonnette ended up perpetrating more violence than we have seen by all the terrorists on Canadian soil since Confederation.  So much for his preemptive action on our behalf.


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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