January 29, 2017 | Killings at a mosque in Quebec City

Sometimes you don’t have to call mass murder terrorism to get a good result.

Over the years I have been part of, or witness to, arguments about when we choose to call something an act of terrorism. Many people are convinced that the term is used inconsistently and feel that this is discriminatory. To put it simply, I have been told that if an assailant is ‘brown’ he is obviously a terrorist where as if he is ‘white’ he is just some crazy nutjob.

There is some truth to this. A few years ago the ultra-conservative American ‘commentator?’ Ann Coulter famously stated “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim” (my latest book, When Religion Kills, is based in part on this myth). Many associate ‘brown’ with ‘Muslim’ and hence we have the clearly biased view of who is in fact a terrorist.

Part of the problem lies not with our internal prejudices but how we define terrorism. As I have noted on many occasions, there simply is no agreed upon understanding of what is and what is not terrorism. These differences are legal, national, personal and societal. And there is little chance there will be any consensus any time soon.

The other challenge, from a strictly legal perspective, is to determine whether a specific act meets the criminal code parameters. In Canada, at least, the prosecution has to demonstrate, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the act was carried out for political, ideological or religious reasons. In some cases terrorists confess to such motivation or leave ‘manifestos’ in which they outline their ’causes’. In others we have to guess and last time I checked we do not live in a Harry Potter world with pensieves and legilimens spells.

If only we had Professor Snape to help us determine terrorist motivation!
Killings at a mosque in Quebec City

With all this being said we find cases of what seems to the average Joe/Jill to be a terrorist attack is not processed as one. Canadian citizen Alexandre Bissonnette is a great example. On this day three years ago (2017) he walked into a mosque in Quebec City on a Sunday evening and shot dead six worshipers, wounding several more.

In this case the Crown (the prosecution in Canada) elected to go with first degree murder charges, not terrorism (Bissonnette pleaded guilty to all charges in 2018 and explained why he did so in a written statement to the judge). In 2019 he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years.

The shooter – check out the MAGA hat
Terrorism/no terrorism?

That sentence was one of the harsher ones in Canadian jurisprudence. The defence plans to appeal his sentence, calling the four decade prison term “unreasonable,” believing that being allowed to apply for parole after serving 25 years would be just. From the Crown’s perspective, the sentence imposed did not reflect the severity of the offences or the respondent’s degree of responsibility, which it qualified as “exceptionally high:” it wants a 50-year prison term.

But getting back to the terrorism/no terrorism debate. Does it make any difference? The accused pleaded guilty anyway and will not see the light of day for a very, very long time. Even if he did have far right ‘leanings’ were these sufficient enough to prove terrorism? What if the Crown had proceeded with terrorism charges and lost? Would Bissonnette now be free?

I am not so sure this difference of opinion is that important. Regardless what the state says everyone already ‘knows’ what terrorism is. Maybe that should be enough.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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