Do we use the T word too often or not often enough?

One of the reasons why I continue to talk and write about terrorism is that I find the field fascinating, and not just because I have worked in countering it for nigh on twenty years.  I never cease to learn more about terrorism and terrorists and what makes the whole thing tick and as someone who has always embraced learning this is indeed a good thing.

In this vein, I find that one of the best ways to learn something new  is to talk to those who do NOT work in counter terrorism.  These people are not burdened with existing paradigms or approaches and can ask simple questions, or adopt very interesting positions, that challenge the way I look at the issue.

Something along these lines happened today.  I was asked by a couple of old colleagues (old = longstanding, not ancient!) to come into a course they are teaching at the University of Ottawa on intelligence and security.  I agreed and was met by a score of Canadian civil servants from a variety of departments, none of whom as far as I could ascertain actually work to stop terrorism.  We had a very good exchange but one question that came up repeatedly was what is terrorism and why do we call some things terrorism while others not?

I answered initially that terrorism is defined (kinda) in the Canadian Criminal Code (actually it is not: ‘terrorist activity ‘ is defined) but that legal wording notwithstanding it is not cut and dried when something is a terrorism and when it is not.  The public may conclude that a given act of violence is terrorism (duh!  of course it is terrorism!) but the law may not agree for it is often very hard to determine underlying motivation for an act of serious violence and, in Canada at least,  motivation is key (i.e. it must be religious, ideological or political in nature).  In this light, the Crown (= the prosecution in Canada) may elect not to bring terrorism charges in a given case either because it can’t show motivation beyond a reasonable doubt (and thus risks losing a case) or because it really doesn’t matter (if you have killed six people in a mosque, as Alexandre Bissonnette did in Quebec City in January 2017, is it really important to label the act terrorism?).

And so the conversation went back and forth.  Why is it in Canada, or so it seems, that the government is all too quick to lay terrorism charges against a Muslim but not against a white supremacist?  Is there a double standard?  I responded no, there is not.  It all comes down to the ability to prove motivation beyond a reasonable doubt: it has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion.  In the cases where we have labeled cases as terrorism we have had ample evidence of motivation (cf. the videos left by Aaron Driver and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau).

But as I type these words I am beginning to wonder if we do indeed use the word terrorism too often and thus weaken its meaning.  As an example of term overuse I read a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times by Roger Cohen entitled ‘It’s time to depopularize ‘populist’ in which he argues that word has been used to describe so many disparate groups of people that it has become a catchall. Mr. Cohen says it best:

Populists may be authoritarians, ethnonationalists, nativists, leftists, rightists, xenophobes, proto-Fascists, Fascists, autocrats, losers from globalization, moneyed provocateurs, conservatives, socialists, and just plain unhappy or frustrated or bored people — anyone, from the crazed to the rational, from the racist to the tolerant, energized by social media to declare the liberal democratic rules-based consensus that has broadly prevailed since the end of the Cold War is not for them for the simple reason that it has not delivered for them, whether economically or socially or culturally.

With such a list the word loses any real meaning, doesn’t it?

I therefore want to suggest that we limit our use of the word ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ to instances where there is definitive proof that the overarching motive for a serious act of violence  is  political, ideological or religious in nature.  This will not solve all of our problems as we can disagree on what political, ideological or religious mean (I still think that the alleged ‘incel’ truck rammer Alek Minassian in Toronto was not motivated by any of these but many have vehemently criticised me for my position, although I want to note that to date he has NOT been charged with terrorism).  It is far from a perfect solution: don’t even think of bringing hate crimes into the debate as that muddies the issue even more let alone the ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ canard.

For some anything terrifying is terrorism, even if the law disagrees.  I am not so naive as to think that my recommendations will sway public opinion.   There are those who will consider Mr. Bissonnette and/or Mr. Minassian terrorists irrespective of what the government says and they are of course entitled to their views.  If we want to engage  in a meaningful (no pun intended) debate however we have to agree on the ground rules.  I am certainly open to suggestions on how to do this but given that in the end we are talking about criminal court cases the Criminal Code would be a good  place to start.  Feel free to weigh in.

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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