What Constitutes Terrorism?

A couple of disturbing, shocking events unfolded this week in Canada, where I live.  The first occurred in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (Quebec), where Martin Rouleau, a convert to Islam, killed a soldier and wounded another by running them down with his car. The second event occurred in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, where Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, also a convert to Islam, shot and killed a 24-year old reservist, Cpl. Nathan Cirrillo. Everyone was quick to conclude that these were acts of terrorism, including our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

What is the definition of terrorism?  The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States defines terrorism as:

violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

Do these two events meet these criteria?  How do you classify these two unrelated acts  as terrorism as opposed to isolated acts of deranged individuals (at the time of writing there is no evidence that the two men were part of a larger conspiracy)?

Why did the PM and others quickly conclude that these were acts of terrorism rather than say two individuals experiencing some type of mental disorder?  Did they, do they, really have enough information to make the call?  Are there any links to terrorists organizations, or a larger conspiracy, for example?  Or was it merely that the perpetrators were  Muslim converts “inspired by ISIL”?

Mentally unstable people are often inspired from without to do all sorts of heinous things, and I think as these stories unfold we will find out that these two men were suffering from significant mental illness.   Indeed both Zehaf-Bibeau and Rouleau appear to have experienced some type of mental illness in the past, including drug addiction (Zehaf-Bibeau) and depression (Rouleau).

Calling these acts terrorism engenders fear of a widespread conspiracy, and induces emotional trauma beyond what is normal when a tragedy of this type occurs.   I saw headlines such as “Canada Under Attack” and “Attack On Ottawa“, which recalled 9-11.  This surely is hyperbole. likely done to drive business to these sites.  But when the leader of the nation is claiming terrorism people will take these headlines seriously.

At the end of the day how do we differentiate individual ‘terrorists’ from mentally-unstable individuals?  Should we not at least wait to obtain evidence in support of one of these possibilities before making a claim of terrorism?


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