The terrorist attack in Canada that wasn’t – or was it?

I know I have written about this before but some things just bear repeating, even if that repetition is repetitive. An act of terrorism is an act of serious violence carried out for political, religious or ideological reasons. The first part of that is usually fairly easy to distinguish. After all, serious violence is an attempt to kill or maim someone or many people or the successful act of doing so.

The second part is less straight forward. Sometimes, as in the Christchurch attacks or 9/11 or Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s killing of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and besieging of Parliament the underlying motive is obvious. Sometimes we get manifestos (Christchurch) or post incident bragging (9/11) or cellphone videos (Zehaf-Bibeau). Sometimes we don’t and that makes the determination of whether or not a serious act of violence is in fact terrorism a hard call.

Case in point was the 2012 ‘assassination attempt’ of then Quebec Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois on election night by Richard Bain. Apparently, Mr. Bain wanted to kill as ‘many separatists as he could’ and left a long list of ‘delusional harangues’ about an ‘imagined group of conspiratorial predators’.

This is according to the National Post’s Colby Cosh, who calls this incident the ‘terrorist case that drew little attention’. I think that the underlying question here is whether this was indeed an act of terrorism or merely (merely?) another attempted mass shooting: I say ‘attempted’ as Mr. Bain’s semi-automatic rifle jammed and he succeeded in murdering only one stagehand working at the theatre where Ms. Marois was preparing a victory speech.

When it comes to deciding that something is terrorism I don’t think that the ideology present has to necessarily be well developed to qualify as such. There is no doubt that Islamist extremists, the far right, and maybe even the Incels have put a lot of thought into what they believe in and why they see violence as ok, necessary or divinely mandated. Other ‘ideologies’ are less well delineated. But is an assassination plot by definition a terrorist act? That, I am not so sure.

We label certain shootings ‘assassinations’ when the target is an important public figure: a king, a president, a prime minister, a pope (hey, what about entertainers? Are they ‘assassinated’?). This differentiates these crimes from the run-of-the-mill murders of those who are not on our TVs every day. The targeting of a premier would probably count as an assassination plan, but is it always terrorism?

As an aside, in the case of Mr. Bain there were serious concerns over his mental state as psychiatrists at the trial disagreed on whether he was ‘criminally responsible’ at time the time of the shooting, although there was evidence of planning and premeditation.

Mr. Cosh goes further and states that the crime was “an attack on democracy, a rejection of the social agreement to choose political leadership by discussion, not force.” That may very well be but that does not necessarily make it terrorism.

In the end Mr. Bain was found guilty by the jury of second-degree murder. To the best of my knowledge a terrorism charge was never registered, or even considered (I could be wrong on the second one). As I have noted before, the Crown does not always need to go for a terrorism conviction where a charge that is much easier to prove – i.e. murder – is available. This does not take away from the emotional debate on why it seems that terrorism is alleged in some cases (i.e. Muslims) and not others (i.e. white supremacists).

I don’t know what to make of the Bain case. Mr. Cosh has raised some interesting points I don’t know what to do with, and I thank him for that. I suppose the terrorism discussion will keep on going and going, perhaps never to reach a resolution everyone will be happy with.

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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