There is a great deal of Canadian commentary on terrorism that speaks within the framework of a country that has never experienced a major terrorist calamity on its soil.
We Canadians have had near misses, but Canadian cities have not had to absorb the cultural, emotional, and political aftershock of a city like Mumbai. Unlike New York or London, our centers have never been marred by wreckage and corpses.
We have been spared the sight of fellow citizens running to check hospitals and morgues; the collection of body parts strewn across miles of city streets; and the deluge of funerals that follows. Rightly or wrongly, the surreal reality of a serious terrorist affront on one’s own soil profoundly changes the nature of the public and political discourse surrounding terrorism.
Our lack of direct visceral experience with terrorism has had both pros and cons in terms of our ongoing national debate on terrorism-related policy. On the one hand, it may allow for a certain sobriety, a more measured response to a phenomenon that will be with us for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, it can also predispose us to a use of language that unwittingly diminishes terrorism to proportions that belie and belittle the nature of the threat.
The adjectives most commonly misemployed in this manner are those that routinely describe terrorist carnage as “senseless” and its perpetrators as “sick” or “brainwashed.” The language is not only inaccurate — it is distracting and disarming. It allows us to dismiss terrorism as a function of derangement, criminality, or mental incompetence rather than an expression of conviction, education, and state policy. It creates a misleading symmetry, equating the Brothers Tsarnaev and the Air India bombers with the likes of convicted serial killer Colonel Russell Williams and Adam Lanza, the mentally ill author of the recent slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut. This type of juxtaposition has been put forward in recent testimony before Parliament, and it falls short of the mark.
For unlike the Toronto 18 and their mentors, neither Williams nor Lanza were committed to ideologies lionizing the destruction of Western society, or the use of WMD. Unlike Williams and Lanza, the Air India bombings have nothing to do with policies related to mental illness, predatory deviance, or gun laws. Unlike Williams and Lanza, the exploits of the Tsarnaevs have nothing to do with sociopathic compulsion, but everything to do with radical Islamist ideology. And unlike the Tsarnaevs and Khawajas of our world, Williams and Lanza were not adherents of a global movement that has spawned over 20,000 terrorist attacks across the globe since 2001. They were not practitioners of an ideology that “understands,” justifies, or lauds the perpetration of virtually any evil against those it deems no longer worthy of life. Williams and Lanza were true “lone wolves” of deadly, but limited means. They acted only as individuals, wounding society from within, while “homegrown radicals,” like the Tsarnaevs, acted as members of a global movement estimated by some experts to number a hundred million adherents worldwide.
Such multitudes cannot be written off as “sick” individuals — and unlike some of our pundits, adherents of this ideology never consider the slaughters perpetrated by their coreligionists as “senseless.” In fact their actions are entirely “sensible,” being a function of principle, tactic and strategy — not derangement, poverty or ignorance.
So perhaps we should be more cautious with the language we use to frame this debate. Perhaps we should give greater consideration to the language of Canadian justices who have determined that terrorism is an “abnormal” crime that “has no equal.” Perhaps those who use Nazi imagery and dictatorial metaphors in their advocacy to scuttle terror-related legislation, should rethink. And perhaps those who adjure Canadians, from the perceived safety of their Canadian perches, to take terrorism in stride like any other form of crime or natural disaster — should be more circumspect. For terrorism is, in fact, different than violent crime, not only in degree, but in kind. And events like 9/11 should not be characterized, in the words of Jean Chrיtien, as things “that happen from time to time.” Because actually — they don’t. They are always in motion. And the quiet between slaughters is illusory. It is nothing more than an interlude in which the Jihadists continue to rake in billions in illegal narcotic sales and prepare their children to celebrate the next round of infidel deaths and the martyrdom of those who will do the killing.
No, the problem we are facing cannot be addressed by repackaging terrorism, either linguistically or legally, as something that it isn’t. However disconcerting, democracies will have to contend with the grey zone of legal and moral quandaries of this unprecedented type of conflict. And this may well result in some of our solutions falling short of the magnitude of the questions we seek to answer. But those shortcomings are of far less consequence than premising our debates on the same “failure of imagination” that brought hell on earth to downtown Manhattan and shook a country to its core. For the moment, we are fortunate to have the latitude to evaluate our policies or explore preventive measures in a Canada whose ground has not been scorched. For the sake of those on any side of this debate, we would be well advised to make good use of the opportunity — while it lasts.
Danny Eisen is a Toronto-based consultant and the cofounder of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT). C-CAT led the campaign for the passage of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (JVTA) which was passed into law by Parliament in 2012. C-CAT also led the successful campaign in Canada to have 9/11 declared a National Day of Service and has been a leading advocate for enhanced sanctions against Iran and the banning of the IRGC as a terrorist entity. Mr. Eisen lost a family member on American Airlines flight 11 — the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.