Few words in the English language inspire as much controversy and debate as the word “terrorism”. In the aftermath of the recent events in Ottawa much ink has been spilled on the question of whether Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was a terrorist and whether his reprehensible actions on Oct. 22 qualify as terrorism.
Politicians and pundits have sought to give this answer a clear-cut yes or no answer. The leader of the Official Opposition, Thomas Mulcair, proclaimed that Zehaf-Bibeau was merely a criminal and was not a terrorist. Prime Minister Stephen Harper retorted that there is “no contradiction in individuals who may have a series of personal financial and mental difficulties, and also be engaged in terrorist jihadist activities.”
The difficulty with employing the term “terrorism,” as apt as it may be in certain circumstances, is that it has such strong, negative emotional connotations which are not conducive to rational political debate. Acts of terrorism are horrific and so outside of what we consider acceptable in armed conflict that we have a strong visceral reaction whenever the term is invoked.
Unfortunately, politicians recognize this and as a result the term has been politicized and carelessly used over the years. The term has become a tool of propaganda, rather than a clearly defined term that might be useful in political discourse. The unfortunate tendency of politicians and pundits to use the term to describe just about any armed resistance contrary to their interests has cheapened the word.
Humans have an unhealthy obsession with questions of semantics and the need to have yes or no answer to these questions.
But if we need to have an answer to the question of whether Zehaf-Bibeau is a “terrorist,” however, it is my view the correct answer to the question is “in ways, kind of, but in others, not really.”
In its most literal sense “terrorism” means to terrorize, and it is certainly not unreasonable to infer that intent on the part of Zehaf-Bibeau. It is hard to imagine that he expected the murder of a single unarmed soldier at the National War Memorial and a doomed Hail Mary in the halls of Parliament to accomplish any strategic objectives.
If he had actually hoped to weaken the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to wage war his efforts were feeble and ineffective. It is not an unreasonable assumption that at least part of Zehaf-Bibeau’s mission was to use fear as a means to weaken the resolve of the Canadian public and its politicians to participate in future military endeavours in the so-called “Muslim world.”
On another commonly understood dimension of terrorism – the targeting of civilians – we have a mixed result. Strictly speaking, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was a military target, so it is understandable why some would reject the use of the term terrorism to describe his death.
But Cpl. Cirillo was a reservist performing a largely symbolic role, far removed from the battlefield. If an attack on him was not terrorism, how would we describe an attack on Canadian Rangers performing exercises on snowmobiles in the Arctic? What about attacks on cadets standing guard at a Remembrance Day ceremony? As with so many other things in politics, the line between military target and pseudo-civilian in military dress is not 100 per cent clear.
Terrorism, in the public mind, is usually understood as an organized endeavour with planning, logistics, and (usually) collaborators. Here the classification of Zehaf-Bibeau as a terrorist breaks down somewhat. As far as we can tell, he acted alone, without any direction other than in the vaguest sense of targeting western interests.
There also does not seem to have been much planning involved. It is entirely plausible, given how events unfolded, that he snapped, grabbed a weapon, and headed to downtown Ottawa with barely a forethought. This is very different from some of the carefully planned, coordinated terrorist attacks we are accustomed to.
Finally there is the question of his motivation. Zehaf-Bibeau was an adherent to a radical version of Islam and apparently espoused some religious-political grievances consistent with those of jihadists. But he was a habitual petty criminal, and had issues with mentally illness, and drug addictions. The exact interplay of these various factors we will probably never know since Zehaf-Bibeau was shot dead during his murderous rampage – but it is likely that each played some role in motivating him to do what he did, further muddying the water.
At the end of the day very little hangs on the question of whether Zehaf-Bibeau was a terrorist or not. It is enough to note that his actions were criminal, repugnant and unacceptable; that they were motivated by a complex mixture of social and personal factors; and they would have been difficult to predict without the benefit of hindsight.
Our obsession with debating this point detracts from the more important question of what, if anything, can and (as importantly) should be done within the context of a free and open liberal society to prevent or minimize recurrence. So called “lone wolf terrorism” present a serious challenge to an open society, and the practical reality is that there may be very little we can do to guarantee it will not happen again.
There is a serious discussion to be had about police powers and civil liberties, and it should take place without the use of highly emotive terms.
Kyle Carruthers is born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.