Terrorism debates are getting personal: a call for civility!

I am fairly certain that a lot of what I have elected to write about today will come as a shock to no one, but here it is anyway. There is a lot of nastiness online. Yes, yes, I realise that this is not an earth-shattering revelation but I feel a need to weigh in for a very simple reason: it has started to affect me personally.

As those who read my blogs know, I made a conscious decision to share my views on terrorism publicly when I retired after 30+ years in the Canadian security intelligence community. In that alone I am a bit of an outlier since most of my former colleagues have opted for other post-career pursuits (which I wholeheartedly salute!). I have decided to weigh in on occasion as I believe that I have some contribution to make to our collective understanding of the ongoing threat from terrorism, mostly based on my experience working on counter-terrorism investigations at CSIS. I have also used that experience to author four books on terrorism so far (with a fifth on its way).

What I have tried to make clear since day one is that I have no definitive answers to the multiple aspects of what to do about terrorism. I have some ideas, but these are seen through the narrow lens of a former practitioner. I have never claimed to speak from an academic or policymaker perspective: I am not the former and was not a good fit in the latter during my final 18 months in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada. Nor have I ever pretended to speak for CSIS: I would never be so arrogant to think I could or should do so.

So, what have I received for putting my ideas out there? A lot of good feedback and I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to let me know that they appreciate my views on terrorism and find them both helpful and thought-provoking. I have also been slandered, called all kinds of names, suffered ad hominem attacks, and accused of having an ‘agenda’. Truth be told but I prefer the former to the latter, as I think anyone would. I also suspect that some of the criticism is tied to the fact that I worked for CSIS. For a section of society anyone who comes from that background is akin to the spawn of Satan.

Well, gee, Gurski, suck it up! If you cannot take the heat get out of the kitchen! Fair point, maybe. After all, we should be able to take the bad with the good. And I normally do not let the slings and arrows get to me (I have broad shoulders I’d like to think).

Lately, however, I have given serious thought to what the next big thing will be for me. There are many reasons aside from the desire to get away from uncharitable comments. I have always maintained that my currency has a best before date. It has been five+ years since I have been involved in a counter-terrorism investigation and I am fully aware that the longer I am on the outs my views become less and less interesting or relevant. Still, I do continue to think that despite my lack of access to current classified material, my background does afford me a relatively rare perspective on open source material that is terrorism- related. Nor am I interested in pursuing this issue from either an academic angle or returning to government on contract to work on policy: I recognise that individuals in both areas have made and are continuing to make important contributions, but neither is for me. In addition, I have a tonne of other pursuits in life that I’d love to embrace more: time at my cottage, more time with my family (and especially my grandson!), maybe even a return to languages and linguistics – my first love and the reason why I got into intelligence in the first place. I could also play more daytime hockey although I seriously doubt that will improve my goals against average!

It is inevitable that I will call it a day at some point: the only question is when. In the meantime, I will continue to share my thoughts on terrorism and what to do about it, albeit maybe less frequently (stay tuned!). I will continue to respond to feedback – even the personal attacks – as politely as I can (NB I know I have been less than charitable myself on occasion in my reactions: this is unacceptable and I apologise for those times. After all, how can I complain about this if I am part of it? I vow to do better). I will continue to consider requests to speak, whether it is in the media or at conferences. And, most importantly, I will continue to learn about terrorism and to inform myself on other views, some of which will be diametrically opposed to my own.

In the end, you may recall the words of Rodney King, the Los Angeles resident who called for calm in a tense period, who famously stated: ” Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. ” This is a call for civility. And yes we can all work together, even if we don’t always agree: (former) practitioners, academics, journalists and just about anyone else with an interest in this field.

One last thing. To cite Monty Python, “I am not quite dead yet!”

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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