Terrorism’s Problematic Implications in Canadian Discourse
The definition of a word is not permanent, as it can change over time based on how it’s used within society. According to the U.S. State Department, “terrorism” refers to “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” But, as noted by journalist Glenn Greenwald, terrorism functionally “means little more than: ‘violence directed at Westerners by Muslims.’”
Greenwald made this claim in an October 22 article in The Intercept that critically analyzed the Canadian government’s response to the death of a soldier in Quebec. The reaction to Greenwald’s article was harsh, with many people disputing that the word “terrorism” is commonly used in such an inflammatory manner. Yet Greenwald is correct; this problematic use of the word “terrorism” is prevalent throughout most of the Western world. Canada is no exception.
In fact, an event the day Greenwald’s article was published tragically proved his point. A soldier on duty at the National War Memorial in Ottawa was killed, which prompted a lockdown of Parliament and the surrounding area. The response to the shooting was sensational when judged on its own basis. Yet the reaction seemed especially blown out of proportion when compared with an incident this year in which a man in Canada three police officers.
Despite the striking similarities between both killers, the varying reactions to them were largely determined by their minor differences. The reaction quickly labeled one man a terrorist and the other a mere criminal. This disparity in designation has contributed to a notable rise in hate crimes after the Ottawa shooting, putting all Muslims in Canada at danger.
Two Troubled Men
The first of the two high-profile slayings of armed officials in Canada took place June 4, 2014, in Moncton, New Brunswick. The man behind the murder was 24-year-old Justin Bourque — a gun enthusiast who often went hunting and to gun ranges, where friends said he looked his happiest. According to a Maclean’s article, by June 4, Bourque had amassed a serious arsenal of weapons, including a pump-action shotgun and an M305 semi-automatic rifle from the United States.
While Bourque collected these weapons, he also became obsessed with perceived intrusions on his liberties from various institutions, including the state and police. Friends described Bourque’s rants as resembling the sort of discourse promoted by the National Rifle Association in the U.S. He “often went on ‘Ted Nugent rants,’ channelling the aging conservative rocker and National Rifle Association champion who famously proclaimed he would be ‘dead or in jail’ if U.S. President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012,” according to the article.
By December 2013, Bourque had moved into a trailer park with friends; one of the walls of his home was decorated with a Confederate flag. Bourque’s political rants intensified at this point. Many of his Facebook posts criticized gun-control advocates, with one stating, “Free men do not ask permission to bear arms.” Friends described Bourque as growing “increasingly fixated” on the “right to bear arms.” Friends also became increasingly worried; according to the Toronto Star, some noticed that he had “recently graduated from smoking marijuana to using harder street drugs” such as heroin. Bourque’s behaviour also became a “major source of concern” for his family, who described him as “going down, down, down low and there was just nothing we could do to reach him,” his father told Maclean’s.
By June 4, something snapped and Bourque initiated a fight with police, resulting in three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers being killed and Bourque surrendering 30 hours later.
Bourque’s motivations became increasingly clear in the days after his capture. According to a Canadian Press article, “Bourque told police the main reason he fatally shot three Mounties and wounded two others was that he was attempting to start a rebellion against an oppressive, corrupt government that he insisted was squelching the freedom of most Canadians.” The prosecutor told the court that Bourque “targeted them not because of any animosity to them specifically, not for lust or greed or any of the normal things you might see in a murder sentencing. He targeted them specifically because of who they were, what they did, the badge they carried, the flash on their shoulders, the uniform they wore.”
On October 31, Bourque was sentenced to 75 years in prison with no possibility of parole, the longest sentence handed out in Canadian history, according to CBC News.
Just over a week before Bourque was sentenced, on October 22, another armed official was killed. This time, the perpetrator was 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed an on-duty soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and then was gunned down by other officers.
Zehaf-Bibeau had a long relationship with law enforcement, beginning at 19 when, according to a Maclean’s article, “he racked up a formidable number of convictions in Montreal, including assault and battery, weapons possession and drunk driving.” In 2004, he served a sentence for possessing PCP and spent much of his life with severe addictions to numerous substances including crack cocaine.
At this point, Zehaf-Bibeau converted to Islam and attempted to become a practicing Muslim. But his crime streak continued. In December 2011, he attempted to rob a McDonald’s in Vancouver with a stick. In court, Zehaf-Bibeau told the judge that “I’m a crack addict and at the same time I’m a religious person. I want to sacrifice freedom and good things for a year maybe, so when I come out I’ll appreciate things in life more and be clean.” This plan ultimately failed as Zehaf-Bibeau’s addiction and criminal behaviour continued to dominate his life.
Around this time, Zehaf-Bibeau was still attempting to attend local mosques, often sneaking in to sleep for the night. Those who met him in the weeks before his shooting noted that he had become especially vocal about his now crude religious views. One of the men who met Zehaf-Bibeau in these weeks said he often talked about how he had to “fight the injustice of foreign intervention in Muslim regions.”
This man added that Zehaf-Bibeau’s “position was that ISIS is fighting a war that has to be fought because the side of decadence and arrogance and debauchery that we live in is trying to overcome the strict, religious beliefs and discipline that they live.” Yet there were also numerous signs that Zehaf-Bibeau had mental health issues, including believing that God “was speaking” to him. One of his friends in Vancouver said he never saw signs of an Islamic fundamentalist in Zehaf-Bibeau, but rather possible mental illness; he often talked of being haunted by the devil.
In a meeting with his mother (whom he hadn’t seen in years) in the days before the shooting, Zehaf-Bibeau mentioned that he planned to travel to Saudi Arabia to live in a Muslim country. Yet his efforts in early October to have his Libyan passport renewed and his Canadian passport processed failed. A few days later, Zehaf-Bibeau traveled to Ottawa to initiate the shooting that would mark the end of his troubled life.
One Criminal, One Terrorist
These two incidents received notably different responses from figures and institutions all over Canada, beginning with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
On October 22, just hours after the shooting when little was known, Harper gave a highly sensational address. He labeled Zehaf-Bibeau a “terrorist” and warned that he may have had “accomplices.” Harper goes on to say that Canada will not be “intimidated” and that, “In fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts and those of our national security agencies to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe here at home, just as it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.”
Harper’s address to the nation on the day Bourque killed three RCMP officers was remarkably different. It was far shorter, and he offered condolences to the families affected, stating, “This violent incident is a stark reminder that our men and women in law enforcement put their lives on the line in Canada every day to protect our citizens and communities.”
This marked difference in the treatment of the two men was also noticeable in the RCMP’s reaction. Commissioner Bob Paulson referred to Zehaf-Bibeau as a terrorist, saying, “The RCMP has identified persuasive evidence that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was driven by ideological and political motives. Zehaf-Bibeau had prepared a video recording of himself just prior to conducting this attack.” According to Maclean’s, Paulson also stated that Zehaf-Bibeau discussed his religious views and Canada’s foreign policy in the video, and that he referred to Allah.
When the RCMP spoke about Bourque’s murder of three of their peers, the word “terrorist” was not used, and no hints at ideological motivations were made. At one point, the RCMP had considered charging Bourque with terrorism, yet ultimately decided against it because they felt the “threshold” was not met, according to the StarPhoenix. Assistant Commissioner Roger Brown said, “You’ve got to be comfortable with what best fits the overall situation, what best fits the circumstances. … You don’t take a stab in the dark without evidence to support it.”
Throughout the ordeal, the RCMP presented Bourque as a lone wolf, while Zehaf-Bibeau was described as a terrorist from the beginning, when very little information was available. These conclusions have been accepted as fact by many public figures in Canada. For example, Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, called Bourque’s action a senseless act of violence while in regard to Zehaf-Bibeau, the National Post reports that he said, “The RCMP was clear, these were acts of terrorism, [so] these were acts of terrorism.” Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, seems to be the only prominent voice rejecting labeling Zehaf-Bibeau as a terrorist, instead calling him a criminal.
Unfortunately the mainstream media has also failed to make any serious challenges to the RCMP and Harper’s classification of the events. There have been countless articles looking at Zehaf-Bibeau’s “path to radicalization,” debating whether Canada is at risk of an Islamist threat, and discussing security measures that will be implemented in the wake of Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack. Meanwhile, discussions on Bourque are far more humanizing, rightly giving attention to his potential mental health issues, without any reference to a threat posed by far-right extremists.
Zehaf-Bibeau and Bourque had a great deal in common. Both were young men born in Canada, had issues with drug addiction, seemed to have serious mental health issues, were unable to hold jobs, drifted in waves of unemployment and sometimes homelessness, and had some fascination with a set of political movements. Bourque’s ideology of interest was the anti-statist, gun liberty, Freemen on the Land type of movement. For Zehaf-Bibeau, the fascination lay with Islamist extremist groups such as the Islamic State. Both launched violent attacks targeting public officials and professed that their ideological beliefs played a role in their actions.
It seems logical to apply the same label to these two individuals as a result of these intense similarities. Yet this did not occur. The difference in the reaction to these two men’s actions seems to be primarily motivated by the fact that one was Muslim, the other was an average white male. The ideology Zehaf-Bibeau professed has been the established Other of the Western world since 2001, whereas Bourque’s ideology is often ignored by the government despite being a serious issue.
The treatment of Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack is emblematic of the way Muslims as a whole have been treated in Canada for at least 14 years. Muslims do not have the privilege of being judged on an individual basis — the actions of one Muslim are often attributed to Muslims as a whole.
This occurs in a variety of ways. For example, government and law officials will view the action of one Muslim as an indicator that there are more serious forces at work, and make grand charges about terrorist plots and the invasion of foreigners. Meanwhile, with more privileged individuals like Bourque, the case is judged on its own basis in a far less sensational manner, even if there’s just as much evidence of “terrorist” motivations as when a Muslim commits a crime.
Greenwald is right to say that “terrorism” is a word now used to describe violence committed by Muslims alone, and the disparity between these two similar cases is just one clear example in a long line of them.
Terror and Islamophobia
This use of the word “terrorism” and the way Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions have been covered have severe implications for Muslims, including increased hate crimes and Islamophobia. To be clear, labeling Zehaf-Bibeau a terrorist is not the sole cause for hate crimes against Muslims. Islamophobia has existed for quite some time, with the worst offenders likely willing to engage in hateful acts regardless of what the government says. Despite this, inappropriately using the “terrorist” label to describe the actions of Muslims does contribute to fear and suspicions by seemingly validating concerns that there is some dangerous plot that all Muslims are in on.
Since Zehaf-Bibeau killed the soldier in Ottawa, multiple mosques have been vandalized in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. Windows were smashed, xenophobic messages written on mosque walls and threats made to figures in the mosques. Harper has not condemned any of these incidents nor has he made a public effort to separate Zehaf-Bibeau’s crimes from Islam. Multiple Muslim organizations in Canada have expressed outrage with Harper’s silence on this matter. Mohammed Mostefa, the president of a mosque that was vandalized in Ottawa, said Harper’s silence will lead Muslim youth to think that, “This is my country and you [Harper] don’t come to my support to stand by my side,” thereby sending them “the wrong message.” Amira Elghawaby, human rights co-ordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said Harper is not living up to his duty as a leader “to set the positive tone.”
Elghawaby is correct, but the issue extends far beyond Harper. The Canadian system as a whole has failed Muslims in the reaction to Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions. First, the term “terrorist” was used in an inaccurate and problematic manner to describe Zehaf-Bibeau, primarily because he was a Muslim. Second, this designation largely went unchallenged by figures in the Canadian system who have a responsibility to critically analyze these labels. This resulted in an especially inflamed wave of Islamophobia, putting all Muslims in danger.
Inaccurate uses of the word “terrorist” must be contested as the consequences of allowing the term to go unchecked are severe. “Terrorism” is a politically loaded term, used in a limited range of political scenario, and as such the term’s use must be critically analyzed. Use of the term is not merely a question of semantics, especially for Muslims and other marginalized communities who suffer from the backlash that terror scares create.