“Terror” discourse won’t silence radicalism

The Harper government’s response to the Oct. 22 Ottawa shooting shows Canada’s counter-terrorism efforts are flawed

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot on Wed, Oct. 22 as he guarded the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot on Wed, Oct. 22 as he guarded the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

Andrea Johancsik, ArtSci ’15

In April, “Toronto 18” member Saad Khalid apologized to Canadians for his role in plotting to bomb Ottawa and behead the Prime Minister in 2006.

He’s set to serve another 12 years of a 20 year sentence, behind bars at the taxpayers’ expense. It`s proof of broken judicial system that doesn’t work to prevent radicalism. This same system enabled Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau to kill two Canadian soldiers last week.

On Oct 20. Couture-Rouleau waited in a parking lot in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, for two hours before he ran over two Canadian solders with his car, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Two days later, Zehaf-Bibeau shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo from behind, killing him as Cirillo guarded the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

The Harper government’s response in the aftermath of these incidents doesn’t promise change. Instead, it promoted a military agenda and avoided the opportunity to constructively address and prevent violent acts.

Canada’s counter-terrorism policy needs to focus on providing a rehabilitative alternative to jail time for radicalized individuals. The federal government currently frames terrorism in a sensational way, without an understanding of how to curb roots of radicalism in Canada.

Further, Canadian discourse needs to focus on how to prevent radicalism and its violent consequences. This prevention can happen by providing appropriate social support for individuals and identification tools for family, friends, community members and police.

The current discourse that’s been purported by Stephen Harper’s government after the murderer of Cpl. Cirillo is harmful. It labelled a very complex issue as a national security threat using the rhetoric of terrorism to blur the lines between religious extremism, radicalized individuals and mental health.

This narrow viewpoint justifies a harsh policy response to increase “surveillance, detention and arrest” measures, while ignoring opportunities to give meaningful action to counter-terrorism policy.

Both Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau have been reported to be recent converts to radical Islam. Harper immediately contextualized Zehaf-Bibeau’s shooting as terrorism – he cited the word four times in his first public speech about the events that occurred on Oct. 22. But it’s unclear whether Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions were deliberate and pre-calculated or impulsive and irrational.

Harper drew links between the targeting of Canadian soldiers and Canada’s recent combat mission to Iraq, referencing the “fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.”

Both NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau avoided the word “terror” in their speeches, instead characterizing the event as an “attack” by a “criminal”, as opposed to a “terrorist”, as Harper described Zehaf-Bibeau.

Despite apparent connections between the two killings, it should be remembered that the two killers’ backgrounds are very different.

Neighbours and friends described Couture-Rouleau as having changed over the last year since he converted to Islam. The RCMP seized his passport in July after he was identified as a suspected extremist.

Zehaf-Bibeau had a history of petty crime and drug use, and wasn’t suspected to be dangerous. The only connection between him and Couture-Rouleau was the assumption that both committed their cirimes because of extremist beliefs.

Canada’s government should have treated each incident specifically, rather than making generalizations based on fear and political motives.

The focus on terrorist rhetoric only exacerbates the issue of radicalism, and does nothing to prevent its occurrence.

Other countries recognize the problem of radicalization extends beyond removing passports and locking people up.

Germany has a hotline dedicated to reporting family and friends that may be involved in radical Islam. In Denmark, the de-radicalization programs for jihadist returnees provide treatment of psychological trauma and aid finding jobs and education, as well as recognizing odd behaviour and characteristics of radical individuals.

In Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, nobody was paying attention to what in retrospect seems like obvious warning signs, including threats, reports of activity on online extremist forums and a history of crime.

If civil society and institutions are uninformed about warning signs, and government policy is insufficient to deal with a variety of causal factors, it can be difficult to prevent violent actions.

It’s clear from the recent events that Canada can’t afford to only use law enforcement to prevent radicalization.

Canada should look to other countries for examples on how to build a comprehensive prevention strategy that addresses the diversity of causes of radicalization.

Providing holistic and integrative prevention, identification and response measures is the humane alternative to Harper’s hurried counter-terrorism response. Putting these measures in place before others are killed is vital.

Andrea Johancsik is a fourth-year environmental science major.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.