Why we must hold back on using the terrorism label

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on July 29, 2019.

July 22 marks a somber anniversary in Canada. A year ago a large crowd was enjoying a summer’s evening on Toronto’s Danforth Ave., sitting in cafes, having dinner, spending time with friends and family. Around 10 PM a lone gunman was seen walking down the street, randomly shooting pedestrians before opening fire on crowded restaurants. In all thirteen bystanders were injured and two women, 18-year-old Reese Fallon and 10-year-old Julianna Kozis, were killed. The assailant, Faisal Hussain, killed himself when Toronto Police later engaged him in an exchange of gunfire.

As it happens, just prior to the onslaught I was on my way to Toronto to deliver a talk to provincial judges on terrorism the following day (Monday, July 23). When the tragedy happened many people’s first reactions turned immediately to terrorism. After all, this was not the first time civilians out on the town had been targeted by real terrorists: London, Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, Kabul, the list is unfortunately far too long. And when it turned out that the perpetrator had a ‘Muslim-sounding’ name that was enough for some. This was most definitely an Islamist terrorist attack as far as they were concerned. In the aftermath I am sure that the usual cast of suspects used the incident to rail against Islam, immigration, Justin Trudeau, lefties, etc., etc., etc., adding that if we did not take action to prevent more ‘undesirables’ from entering our land we would see more such attacks.

Except that this had nothing to do with terrorism, at least to the best of our knowledge.

This is important. What happened on the Danforth was a terrible crime that killed two, wounded many more and scarred even more for life. And yet there is nothing to support the theory that the assailant was a terrorist. He may have had many issues and many competing reasons or motivations to justify, or at least account for, what he did that evening but there is absolutely no information I am aware of that points to some kind of politically- or religiously-motivated act (the hallmarks of terrorism). True, there may be some aspects of the data gathered that have remained secret to this day although I am skeptical that Toronto Police or any other agency that may have had a role to play in the subsequent investigation (CSIS? the RCMP?) would have a valid reason for doing so and leaving us in the dark and not calling it terrorism. Or keeping the ‘truth’ from us if you are conspiracy-minded.

No, what we have here seems to be another example of a troubled young man who took out his frustrations on others and eventually himself. The fact that he was a Muslim is peripheral and, as far as I can tell, irrelevant to our understanding of the murders he committed. Muslim is not a synonym for terrorism, unless you happen to be the US blowhard Ann Coulter. We really have to get away from this inaccurate and unhelpful stereotype. The last thing we need is an analogy to “driving while black”.

We in Canada are blessedly unaffected most of the time by acts of actual terrorism in our country: not all nations can make the same claim. Terrorism nevertheless does have a disproportionate impact on us because we do read about it a lot (paradoxically I suppose my regular column in this newspaper contributes to this saturation). Still, we can talk about terrorism and its effects without seeing it everywhere all the time. We can have an exchange of views on this important subject matter without labeling all similar incidents, especially where Muslims are involved, terrorism.

The world already has too much terrorism. Let us not create more when it does not exist.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a retired strategic intelligence analyst at CSIS.

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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