Removing the label

In the wake of the horrific killings at an African American church in South Carolina, the old argument was again raised: was this an act of terrorism?  Many criticised the media and government for hesitating to use the term and some concluded that terrorism only seemed to apply when the perpetrators were Muslim and not white.

Are these comments fair?  Was the massacre terrorism?  What is terrorism after all?

Here we enter a very complex and confusing world for there are many, many definitions of terrorism, both legal and popular.

In Canada, the legal definition can be found in section 83 of the Criminal Code.  It is very long and written in legalese, so I won’t dwell on it here.  The various aspects of that section have been tested in several court cases recently, however,  so it seems to work.

But if we reduce terrorism to its fundamental parts, I think we can agree that the following apply:

1) there has to be an act of violence;

2) the perpetrator has to act violently out of political, religious or ideological convictions;

3) the act of violence is carried out to make a statement or to pressure society or the government to act a certain way or change its way of thinking on an issue.

Note that human life does not have to be lost under these criteria.  Remember the bombing of gas wellheads in northeastern BC a few years ago?  The perpetrator was destroying private property to protest natural resource extraction and get the company to stop doing it, and was probably motivated by some form of environmentalism.

So where does this leave us with the events in Charleston, SC?  Was it terrorism?

Well, the first criterion listed above certainly applies.  What about the other two?

Here, things are not so clear.   The alleged shooter appears to have held hateful views towards African Americans (he is reported to have justified his act because he believed African American men were raping white women in the US and was seen wearing a jacket sporting the flag of the former African state of (white) Rhodesia).  But is hate an ideology?  Many loathsome ideologies are filled with hate but it is far from clear that hate on its own (of whatever identifiable group) can be called ideology.  It seems that for a mentality to be called ideological it has to be more robust than just “hate”

Let’s assume for  a moment that the shooter’s hate was ideological.  Then what was the goal?  What was he hoping to achieve with his act of violence?  So far there does not appear to be anything to support part 3 above.  He wasn’t asking for the US government to deport African Americans for example.

Note that a similar attack, that perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway a few years ago, was clearly terrorism.  If you can’t see the difference, try reading Breivik’s 1,500 page manifesto where he outlines in excruciatingly verbose detail his worldview .

Maybe it is time to ditch the term “terrorism” and call these acts – all of them – what they are: violent extremism.  This may be easier to apply.  They are violent and they are extreme (i.e. far from the ordinary).  Several governments (including the Canadian) have already switched their intervention programs from counter-terrorism to countering violent extremism (CVE).

Inevitably we’ll have the argument: what constitutes extremism?  But the term “terrorism” is so charged with emotion that perhaps we can put it aside for a while.

Now there’s an idea!

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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