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March 31, 2015

Let's Delete "Terrorism"

David Lorge Parnas

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Recent events revealed that Canada's legislators disagree on the meaning of a word that is used frequently in legislation; that word is "terrorism".

- Our Prime Minister quickly branded the man who killed a soldier and attacked Parliament a terrorist.

- Initially, the major opposition leaders eschewed the”terrorist” label.

- One opposition leader revised his opinion by saying that if the police say it is terrorism then it is terrorism; apparently, he doesn’t trust his own definition.

- A Senator (and former police chief), said that the acts themselves identified the violence on The Hill as terrorism. He believes that the motive is irrelevant.

- Dictionaries and other reference works state that a crime must have a political, religious, or ideological motive to be terrorism.

- Responding to reports of a foiled suicide attack in Nova Scotia, Justice Minister Peter MacKay implied a different criterion when he said, “… the attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism.” He described the would-be shooters as “murderous misfits," not terrorists.

We should question the use of the term in laws, because the meaning of “terrorism” is fuzzy. Moreover, distinguishing between violent, criminal acts on the basis of motive can be questioned on many other grounds.

- Why should we treat ideologically motivated killers as more dangerous, and more deserving of punishment, than those who murder for financial gain, anger, revenge, or jealousy?

- Why should we give law enforcement agencies more powers for the prevention of culturally motivated crimes than for the prevention of equally horrific crimes committed for other reasons?

- Why should we treat conspiracies motivated by political or ideological goals as more egregious than conspiring to import and distribute drugs or force women into prostitution?

- If the organizers of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre had been land speculators, would the crime have been less serious?

- Why should the penalty for supplying weapons to drug gangs be different from the penalty for selling weapons to ideologically motivated groups?

- If the men who attacked soldiers in Montreal and Ottawa in 2014 had been enraged because a soldier “stole” their girlfriend, would their acts have been less appalling?

Another problem with treating ideologically motivated crimes differently from other crimes is that our judgement about whether or not the word “terrorism” applies to the crime can be very subjective.

- When people approve of the political goals that motivated an act of violence, they often identify the perpetrators as freedom-fighters. Those who do not share the perpetrators’ goals, describe the same acts as terrorism.

- Some groups that had been identified as terrorist organizations, have been re-branded as “liberators” when it proved geopolitically convenient.

- Some governments accuse their political enemies of terrorism or supporting terrorism to gain support.

- We forbid our citizens joining some foreign armed groups but seem to approve their fighting for forces that the current government calls friendly.

There is also confusion about how to apply the term “terrorism” when the perpetrator appears to be emotionally or mentally disturbed.

- Some say that a criminal who is disturbed, suffering from a mental illness, or desperately unhappy, cannot be considered a terrorist.

- For others, the mental state of the perpetrator is irrelevant.

Some observers accept the motive claimed by criminals as sufficient to determine whether or not they are terrorists; others may question the stated motive because it might be the perpetrators’ attempt to rationalize, defend, or glorify their crimes.

The cases of Justin Bourque and Travis Baumgartner should also make us question the need for special laws to deal with politically motivated violence. Bourque, who claimed to be ideologically motivated, shot five policemen, killing three of them. Baumgartner shot four of his co-workers, also killing three. Although each killed more people than many who are called terrorists, neither was labelled a terrorist. Both murderers received sentences that are likely to keep them in jail until the end of their lives without the use of special antiterrorism laws.

The use of the term “terrorism” distracts us from facts that suggest possible ways to reduce the number of future attacks on our institutions. After the killing of the soldier in Ottawa, it emerged that:

- The shooter was so desperate for help with his mental and physical problems that he asked to be jailed but was refused.

- The killer sought healing in a religion but was rejected by his chosen place of worship and denied the chance to seek help in another country.

These observations should make us ask whether improving our social safety net, including helping religious institutions to provide support to disturbed worshippers, might save lives. The use of the word “terrorism” encourages us to seek safety exclusively in strengthened police powers.

The use of the word “terrorism” blinds us to serious problems that should not be ignored. The suffering of the millions of people who have been displaced or suppressed by political developments in the Middle East is often treated as if it were unimportant. Our indifference to the pain of Arabs disturbs many people.

Those who turn to violence to fight for what they see as fairness are identified as “terrorists”; those who protest nonviolently are called terrorist sympathizers. The ongoing suffering of millions of innocent people continues to be ignored.

Paradoxically, the people that we call terrorists want us to do just that. Many terrorist groups label themselves an “army” or a “state”. In their mind, this justifies killing and allows them to claim to be defenders of some cause or oppressed group. When we declare that we are at war with them, we give them the prestige that they seek. If they avow a religious motive, they can say that they are fighting a “holy war.” They would be disappointed and frustrated if they were treated as mere criminals.

We should be doing everything we can to stop mass violence, and conspiracies to commit such crimes, but we should remember that:

- A person maimed or killed by a drug gang is not better off than someone attacked by a politically motivated group.

- Law enforcers should not be burdened by having to prove that criminals’ motives are political, religious, or cultural in order to gain the powers that they need to prevent crimes.

- Prosecutors should not have to prove that there was an ideological or political motive for a crime; they should just have to prove that the accused committed the crime.

- Criminals who have political or ideological motives should not be rewarded by a declaration that we are “at war” with them.

Our government has proposed strengthened terrorism legislation. I agree with Justice Minister MacKay that it is crucial that attacks on people be prevented from happening, whenever possible. The law enforcement community should be provided with the tools that they need. However, the word “terrorism” can be used to frighten us into accepting unreasonable secrecy and restriction of our civil liberties. We would all be safer if we eliminated the word “terrorism” from our laws and treated all violent crimes the same way. The Senator who said that violent acts speak for themselves was right; when preventing violent crimes, motive should not matter.

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