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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau a terrorist? Yes (but you don’t get to decide)

The attacks in Ottawa on October 22, 2014, by Muslim-convert Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, in which he killed an unarmed honour guard at the War Memorial and then stormed parliament, have been called “terrorist” by the RCMP, the government and, depending on weather conditions, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Thomas Mulcair: soft on "terror"? (Source: CBC)

However. Tom Mulcair, leader of the official oppositions, has stated categorically that “When we look at the individual...we are not in the presence of a terrorist act in the sense that we understand it.” 

In Mulcair’s view, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction, and repeatedly sought help, had committed an uncommon and horrific crime, but not a terrorist act.

In order for an attack like the one in Ottawa to be considered terrorist, it must comply with a pre-established set of criteria. This is much like the set-lists commonly used to assess conditions such as alcoholism or Asperger’s syndrome.

However, in the case of terrorists, six advance criteria are crucial for observers to take into account. The debate goes nowhere unless we accept this ground game, as unfair as it may seem.

1. Alleged terrorist aren’t allowed to take the test. Only others can. And others may come to different conclusions when faced with the same questions. And ultimately, the public is just playing Boggle: only governments get to score this.

2. The terrorist argument is not allowed to have a relativist component.  We can’t say a person is not a terrorist because we do the same or worse. This is crucial: the doctor offering the prescription cannot himself be considered sick. So, it is epistemologically impossible for the government of Canada to commit a terrorist act. That’s just the way it is.

3. History and numbers don’t matter. They just don’t. Centuries of Western colonialism, recent interventions in the Middle East, the role of Israel...None of it matters. Two dead soldiers on Canadian soil after over a decade of military involvement overseas are the defining factors, period.

4. Criteria can be culturally adjusted. Usually there is a religious and/or race-based skew. The Koran, an intolerant text (sorry, it is), has some good bits, and the vast majority of Muslims in Canada are law abiding. The Old Testament, another  intolerant text (sorry, I know that’s hard, too), also has some good bits, but of course the vast majority of Jewish Canadians are law abiding. The New Testament, also an intolerant text (more apologies, but the “Jesus is Love” thing doesn’t stand up: we are to follow Him or be damned for all eternity), has informed the morals of millions of law abiding Canadians. In all instances, believers in the latter two religious texts who commit acts of violence as part of a coherent agenda, and to advance their narrow interests, will be less inclined to be considered terrorist than their Muslim equivalent. Volumes could be written on this bias, but there it is.

5: Geopolitics matter. If there is a brutal Islamic insurgency in another part of the world, with nasty threats being made against the West, and foreigners beheaded, then any Muslim who professes sympathy for the cause is shit out of luck.

6. Fear always wins. Once an act is deemed terrorist, the government gets to do more or less what to wants. Cool.

That said, now that the RCMP has said that the events in Ottawa were a terrorist act, we offer up the following assessment.

+ Did Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau belong to, or show sympathy with, what the government considers a terrorist organization or ideology? Sort of. He didn’t belong to an organization. However, he was a Muslim, and made a video (which, surprise, we aren’t allowed to see), claiming sympathy for persecuted Muslims, and a desire to attack Canada's military.

+ Was his act intended to terrorize? Yes. Some have said that because he shot a soldier it could be considered a legitimate act of war, but that soldier was unarmed, and Zehaf-Bibeau made his way to parliament to kill civilian politicians. Of course, in acts of warfare an enemy’s political leadership is usually considered fair game, and civilian casualties are an accepted by-product, but not in this case, because we write the rules (see point #2).

+ Did he repent? Uncertain. He went down fighting, so we guess not. However, there is some question as to whether Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau could have been helped in advance, should people have been paying attention. But after-the-fact assessments have little merit. The deed is done.

+ Was the act premeditated? Yes. Despite his history of mental illness, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was cogent enough to make a video where he allegedly said that his actions were “in the name of Allah in response to Canadian foreign policy.” Remember: killing on behalf of Allah makes you a terrorist, but if you serve the devil you are simply a schizophrenic. Serious advances could perhaps be made if we accepted that anyone acting on behalf of gods, spirits, or devils, is mentally ill, and mentally ill people can’t be terrorists – but we aren’t there yet.

+ Did he consider himself a terrorist? No, but it doesn’t matter (see point #1). The RCMP says that in his video Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau threatened the military and discussed Canadian foreign policy. So, that could make him a soldier of sorts. But remember: he can’t score himself. This question might be meaningful to some people, but not to the government.

So, on balance it looks like Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was a terrorist. 
A cover of the novel 1984

Cue changes to security laws and less oversight of the RCMP/CSIS, The Conservatives are on track to increase police powers for surveillance, detention, arrest, and evidence collection, If they do this at ministerial discretion, without judicial oversight, then it will be dark days indeed. This will be above and beyond the recently-passed Bill C-44, which now allows Canada's intelligence community to act in an extra-judicial manner overseas. Bill C-44 is great news for Canadian business, which is already closely tied-in with our foreign investment and trade offices abroad.

Sadly, we may be becoming our own worst enemy. More Canadian soldiers have committed suicide from 2004 to 2014 (160) than have been killed in combat from 2002 to 2014 (138). Compared to military deaths due to domestic terror attacks, that comes to 298/2.  But it is terror, so we are to prepare for what “might” happen, while staying engaged militarily overseas in an part of the world that has been controlled by western colonial powers (or the dictators who did their bidding) for hundreds of years.

But this time it’s different. Now its liberation. And they are the terrorists. So, we can expect more of this stuff, and more of the same response. It is reminiscent of Orwell’s novel 1984, where permanent war with limited real domestic impact has great leverage politically (see point #6).

Should Canadians take Mulcair’s view, there could be real movement, but we can expect him to be demonized as naive, and soft on terrorism. That in turn will lead to more political posturing on the part of Prime Minister Harper, wallowing from Justin Trudeau and, perhaps, another Conservative victory in the 2015 general election. 

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

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