War on terror

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What’s in a word? A great deal, it seems, when that word is “terrorism.”

There are probably no terms that are currently subject to more purposeful distortion and misuse than “terror” and “terrorism.”

As many astute commentators have pointed out “terror” is a tactic. It has been — and continues to be — employed by various groups in pursuance of political agendas.

Thus, a “war on terror” is a terminological absurdity. One cannot wage a war on a tactic. One cannot bomb a “tactic” out of existence. Nonetheless, such terminological (and consequently tactical) nonsense has dominated the foreign policy of a variety of nations (United States, Great Britain, NATO, and now, seemingly, Canada) for the past 15 years (see the War on Terror). 

This doesn’t, of course, mean that “terror” as a tactic, doesn’t exist or isn’t effective. Arguably it has been employed since Attila the Hun (453 AD) — if not long before. The tactical point of terrorism is to terrorize. People who are terrorized cease to think rationally. They are terrified. Terrified people are readily manipulated. Terrifying things tend to provoke strong reactions — frequently over-reactions. That is the point. Extremist groups have employed this tactic in precisely this way for precisely this purpose. During the Russian Revolution Vladimir ilyich Ulyanov (a.k.a. Lenin) instituted what proved to be a four-year long campaign of “Red Terror” against class enemies writing:

“It is necessary – secretly and urgently to prepare the terror … You must … hang publicly, so that people see it, at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. Do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so.”

Later, Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, murdered a quarter of the Cambodian population in another mindless orgy of terrorist bloodletting. Extremist groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang (a.k.a., the Red Army Faction) employed terror hoping to provoke over-reaction and so illustrate the “fascist” nature of the state. The examples are legion. The tactics are universally despicable.

That said, addressing the challenges posed by extremist groups involves addressing what motivates them, which is by no means homogeneous. Referring to them all as simply “terrorists” and seeking to liquidate them through a “war on terror” is, in addition to being conceptually absurd, also confusing and ineffective. However reprehensible the tactics, there are legitimate (for example injustice and dispossession) and illegitimate (for example greed and avarice) root causes that motivate those who to engage in “terrorist” activities. To dispel the problem one needs to address the cause, and to do so requires that one correctly identify it.

Surveillance CamerasMoreover, this deliberate conflation of all opposition with “terrorism” lends itself to ominous abuse whereby environmentalists, native communities, social justice advocates, and others who have well-founded concerns with government policy morph — in the minds of authorities — into suspected or potential “terrorists” requiring surveillance and (frequently unspecified) other punitive measures.

The Harper Conservatives have pursued this approach with abandon, introducing legislation such as the current “anti-terrorism” Bill C-51 intended to “disrupt” emerging terror threats at home and abroad. A bill that even a former CSIS agent, Francois Lavigne (interviewed by Stephen Maher in the National Post) feels is a, “threat to the rights of Canadians,” and is being promulgated by the prime minister using “fascist techniques.”

Arguably what the Harper Conservatives in Canada have done (according to one’s perspective) is either succumbed to terrorism’s agenda of fomenting fear, or else simply co-opted it for purposes that serve their own political agenda — namely using the concocted apprehension of “terrorism” on Canadian soil to justify a prospective increase in police and security-services powers and a further erosion of civil-liberties.

Shock DocterineAs Naomi Klein has pointed out in her masterful book, The Shock Doctrine, fear trumps all emotions. “Fear is the mind-killer,” wrote Frank Herbert. Scare people sufficiently and you can predispose them to accept any and every Draconian measure. Rationality, which normally tempters panic, flies out the window. This has been used time and again to “shock” the populace into accepting what would otherwise by patently intrusive, erosive, and unacceptable measures. And, there’s no better method to scare people than to incessantly invoke “terrorism”.

Never mind that it is completely unclear how they actually define “terrorism,” and even under extremely elastic definitions, “terrorism” is an infinitesimally minuscule threat to Canadians. As James Baxter pointed out in his article, “Life’s too short; stop fretting about terrorism in iPolitics:

“There are, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of ways you are more likely to die or be critically injured than at the hands of a terrorist in Canada. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes… medical malpractice, bad drug interactions, falls in the bathtub… poor food inspection… bad water, malaria, drunk drivers, venereal disease… improper antibiotics, toxic shock syndrome… heck, even bed sores.

“When it comes to violence, statistics would indicate you are still many hundreds of times more likely to die at the hands of your spouse than some whacked-out extremist. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the average American is as likely to be crushed to death by televisions or other furniture as they are to die in a terrorist attack.” 

So one has to ask, why, given the vast number of things that legitimately threaten Canadians — for example, the towering threat of climate change to radically destabilize the planet and our existence in it — do the Harper Conservatives focus on what is arguably one of the least consequential threats to our lives and well-being? Could there be an ulterior motive?

Criminal CodeThis inflated spectre of “terrorism” continues to be used to erode the bedrock of Canadian civil society. Indeed, in my view, the Canadian Criminal Code in regard to its definition of terrorism (C. 46, part II.1) lends itself to such problems. It includes many activities which are contrary to other sections of the Criminal Code (i.e., those which “cause death or serious bodily harm to a person by the use of violence; endanger a person’s life; cause a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public; cause substantial property damage; cause serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system”). If these are already illegal activities according to other sections of the Criminal Code, why highlight them ihere? What is to be gained thereby?

Furthermore, the Criminal Code contains the circular definition that a “terrorist group” is “an entity that has as one of its purposes or activities facilitating or carrying out any terrorist activity.” Hmm… how helpful is this?

The only salient component that the Criminal Code adds to the mix is defining that “terrorism” is committed, “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause; and in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public.” 

In an editorial entitled “Canada’s Fuzzy Terrorism Policy“, the Ottawa Citizen touches on some of the ambiguities of the Canadian government’s use of the word “terrorism.”

“Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s ill-judged comments on the weekend will not inspire confidence that the federal government has a clear and coherent understanding of terrorism. This is particularly worrying given that the government is currently trying to make changes to Canadian law using terrorism as justification.” 

Peter MacKayThe editorial points out that there continues to be a selective application of the term “terrorism” by the Canadian government, applied (for example) by the Harper Conservatives to a murderous misfit like Michael Zehaf Bibeau, a habitual offender convicted of larceny, drug possession, parole violations, and uttering threats who some thought was mentally ill before his October 22, 2014 attack on Parliament Hill; but not (according to Justice Minister MacKay) to be applied to disturbed misfits like Lindsay Kantham Souvannarath, Randall Steven Shepherd, and James Gamble who allegedly planned to kill people at a shopping mall in Halifax on Valentine’s Day (there are also absurd attempts to characterize these disturbed teenagers as “Neo-Nazis” and/or white supremacists for sporting their Hitler paraphernalia). Would Mark Lépine, the mass murderer who killed for reasons of misogyny qualify as a”terrorist”? Surely murdering women on the basis of their gender could be characterized as “terrorism” under the Criminal Code? Yet Lépine was not referred to as such. 

Reputable news agencies largely or entirely eschew the use of this value-laden word employing instead terms such as combatant, insurrectionist, insurgent, or rebel. While Gerald Seymour’s, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s revolutionary” (Harry’s Game,1975) is somewhat blithe, the historical reality is that this has in some occasions been true.

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe lesson here is that the indiscriminate application of labels like “terrorist” and “terrorism” are a hall of mirrors in which we are blinded by the endless reflections of the preconceptions that we ourselves cast. Such usage doesn’t provide illumination, simply unending replication. Alienated, troubled adolescents are alienated, troubled adolescents. Disturbed criminals are disturbed criminals. The mentally ill are mentally ill. Sociopaths and psychopaths are sociopaths and psychopaths. Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed “caliph” of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a terrorist. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, is a terrorist. Alexander Dugin, leader of the National Bolshevik Front, is a neo-Nazi. Conflating them all under one label serves no purpose.

In an article entitled “Harper’s Police State Law” in The Tyee, federal Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, writes:

“Here is what Stephen Harper wants Canadians to think: We are at war. We face a massive terrorist threat. We must be very, very afraid and we must not question any law brought in allegedly to fight terrorism. Anyone who raises finicky, lily-livered concerns about civil liberties is a fellow-traveller of ISIS.

“Here’s the truth: We are not at war.”

Stephen Harper

Terminological confusion is bad enough. It means we are unable to clearly communicate what we mean — indeed we may ourselves not know. But even worse is the “shock” application of the word “terrorism” that masks a political stratagem to conjure fear and panic citizens. Such paths lead to ominous conclusions. “Hope is better than fear,” wrote Jack Layton in leaving us. Indeed, a politics steeped in terror dissolves in its own corrosive acid.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...