The danger of ascribing motive to violent acts too early

All of Canada is living through a real time manhunt as I type. Three people were killed in remote northern BC on July 15, a young American woman and her Australian travel mate as well as a 64-year old man from Vancouver. The suspects in the case, Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, are believed to be somewhere in northern Manitoba, which is a heck of a long way from northern BC (more than 2,000 km). To say that small communities in Manitoba are on edge is to put it mildly. Tomorrow marks two weeks that the two alleged killers have been on the lam.

We are learning a little about the suspects through journalists’ accounts such that there is speculation that at least one may have far-right or neo-Nazi leanings. The online activities of Mr. Schmegelsky, described as “a bit depressed…like most ‘nerd(s)’ from the internet, spending a shit ton of time playing video games, fond of history but probably not really ‘sociable’ guy”, have been found to include photos of him sporting a Nazi armband and a Hitler Youth knife inscribed with the German phrase for “Blood and Honour.” For what it is worth, his father says his son “hasn’t been nurtured, doesn’t have a driver’s licence, never learned to ride a bike, craved love and affection, while his influences, YouTube and video games, haven’t been good.

All this is of course interesting and of concern if true. At the same time it is very important not to jump to conclusions over the relationship, if any, between possible ideology and the brutal murders. I have yet to see anything so far that indicates that two men killed in the name of, or influenced by, far right violent extremism (if there is a link it is still hidden). This may be just a heinous crime committed by two troubled young men for no reason at all. Then again there may be something to the neo-Nazi angle: we’ll just have to wait and see.

My overarching concern here is that we may be guilty of the same bandwagonning we did with Islamist extremism. Whenever we learned of a killing involving a Muslim some went the ‘It’s Al Qaeda!” route right away. The Danforth shooting of last July is a good example of this inaccurate portrayal.

I know that there has been a lot of attention paid to the far right threat in Canada of late, especially by the Vice reporters Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux. They have been beating this drum for some time and their reporting is quite good. Even if I am an Islamist terrorism specialist even I recognise the need to give this alternative form of violent extremism its due. Let’s face it, there is no doubt that there are nasty far right actors in Canada and some are probably capable of terrorist acts (a la Alexandre Bissonnette in Quebec City in January 2017).

Still it is best to hold fire before jumping to conclusions. If the pair is taken alive – that may not happen as the dad thinks Mr. Schemegelsky will “go out in a blaze of glory” – we may learn more as to why. Then again we may not, as seen in lots of cases (the mass shootings in Las Vegas in October 2017 are a good example of our inability to determine motive).

I know this sucks – the lack of knowledge – but it happens. If we are to be as accurate in our analysis as we can we need to wait. Patience is a virtue after all.

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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