The need to define what is and what is not terrorism – yes, again.

Today marks a very solemn occasion in Canadian – and world – history.  29 years ago, on December 6, 1989, misogynist Marc Lepine  went into a classroom at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique and, after separating the men from the women, killed 14 of the latter before cowardly taking his own life.  His excuse?  Lépine’s suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life and claimed the murders were his way of “fighting feminism.”

This was a horrific crime and an illustrative example of hate towards an identifiable group.  And there is no question that Lepine terrorised those women. But was his act one of terrorism?

Great question.

Sometimes it seems that words mean whatever people want them to mean.  To cite Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s classic Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”   If there was no consensus on what words do or do not mean, how would communication be possible?

(As an aside, putting on my old linguistics hat again, we do collectively decide what words mean as a speech community.  In other words (no pun intended!) dictionaries do not tell us meanings: a good dictionary reflects what we think words mean.  A good reminder of this can be seen in this Aeon article.)

So was the Polytechnique massacre terrorism or not? I lean towards no.  An act of terrorism has to be a serious act of violence (and that incident certainly was) for one or more of political, religious or ideological reasons.  Lepine was certainly full of hatred but I cannot see that hatred as any one or several of a political, religious or ideological reasons.  I have recently written about the difference between hate and terrorist so I won’t repeat that here.

All of this has not prevented some people who should know better from using the ‘T’ word where it does not belong.  Here are a few examples:

In my understanding only the third example listed above qualifies as true terrorism: the 2018 Global Terrorism Index does show that Nigeria indeed suffers acts of terrorism to an extent surpassed by Afghanistan and Iraq.

But even the well respected Global Terrorism Index makes a major error in its rankings, one that undermines our quest for an accepted understanding of terrorism. It lists last’s year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas as a terrorist attack – except that it was not to the best of our knowledge.  Yes, Stephen Paddock did kill 59 people and wounded hundreds and yes Islamic State (IS) claimed it (there is zero evidence Paddock was IS), but there is absolutely nothing to support the contention that this act was terrorist in nature (and we will probably never figure out why Paddock did this as he is dead and not available for further questioning).

It does matter how we delineate terrorism. It  matters from a legal perspective in terms of what charges governments can lay; it matters from a policy perspective with regards to resource deployment; and it matters more generally because the belief that terrorism is bigger than it really is leads to panic and fear, two things seldom helpful when it comes to deciding what actions to take.

In the end, when everything is terrorism nothing is.  Since terrorism is a real thing we cannot afford to let this concept melt into meaninglessness.  It is time to tighten up what we mean when we say something is terrorism.

In memory of the victims of the Ecole Polytechnique act of mass hate.

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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