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A terrorist for all seasons

Calgary West MP Rob Anders raised a few eyebrows this week when he refused to join the rest of Canada's parliamentarians in celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela.

Calgary West MP Rob Anders raised a few eyebrows this week when he refused to join the rest of Canada’s parliamentarians in celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, siding instead with those who dismiss the former African National Congress leader as a communist and a terrorist.

Anders raised the issue of ANC terrorism in 2001, when he was the sole MP to vote against a motion making Mandela an honourary citizen of Canada, calling the African hero “the politically correct kind of ‘lib’ left poster-boy of today.” John McCallum, the Liberal MP who introduced the 2001 motion, dismissed Anders’ comments as “ridiculous and ignorant,” and the kind of “nasty sludge” to be expected from the Canadian Alliance Party.

“(Mandela) is not a terrorist, he is a freedom fighter,” said McCallum, “a great icon of the human spirit.” Then as now, Anders was outnumbered in the House of Commons 307 to one.

So how did one man come to such a different conclusion from everybody else, including his own caucus colleagues? Could it be that the definitions of the terms “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” are at best unclear? The question arises, what’s the difference between the two?

Here’s a definition of terrorism from the Government of Canada. “Terrorist activity includes an act or omission undertaken, inside or outside Canada, for a political, religious or ideological purpose that is intended to intimidate the public with respect to its security, including its economic security, or to compel a person, government or organization (whether inside or outside Canada) from doing or refraining from doing any act, and that intentionally causes one of a number of specified forms of serious harm.”

Nelson Mandela was a founding member of MK, the armed wing of the ANC, created in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre. On March 21, 1960, police fired on a crowd of more than 5,000 demonstrators opposed to South Africa’s infamous pass laws, killing 69. Concluding that non-violent demonstrations were not working, Mandela and others embraced violent struggle as the way to end apartheid.

MK bombed power stations, pubs and shopping centres, burned crops, tortured and killed collaborators, and killed hundreds of civilians. While Mandela, from his jail cell, refused to renounce the violence, ANC members hideously tortured other black Africans to death using the “necklace,” a gasoline-filled tire forced round the victim’s neck and set on fire. Mandela’s wife at the time, Winnie, endorsed these acts, and her husband never condemned them.

Conspicuous in its absence from Canada’s definition of terrorism is any mention of acts or omissions intended to intimidate the public which might be justified by the heinous nature of the government the so-called terrorists opposed. It would be reasonable to conclude that Canada makes no distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters.

But that conclusion would be false. Islamist forces opposed to the regime in Syria have Canada’s support, while the elected government of Gaza is deemed terrorist, though both stand accused of using tactics designed to intimidate the public. Indeed, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act could still prevent Mandela’s old comrades in arms from entering the country.

If you were British in Palestine in the 1940s, Haganah was a terrorist organization. If you were Jewish they were freedom fighters. If you were German in France at the same time, the Maquisards were terrorists.

The terms “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” exist for the purpose of muddying the waters. Both refer to resistance fighters, and placing a moral value on resistance is no simple matter. Tactics, however extreme, need to be measured against the depth of oppression, and the hope of success. Blowing up mail boxes and stuffing diplomats in trunks in Quebec in the 1970s was inexcusable (though somehow we came to excuse it) but blowing up Nazi troop trains was heroic.

Simply put, a terrorist is a freedom fighter with whom you disagree. Or, if you can’t be bothered to put any thought into it, it’s a freedom fighter with whom your government disagrees. In this respect, Anders deserves credit for doing his own thinking, however fuzzy that thinking might be.

Mandela was a resistance fighter. His cause was justified, and he won. He was a terrorist if you believe in apartheid, and a freedom fighter if you don’t. Canada has chosen one side. Anders has chosen the other.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.