TORONTO – In Quebec on Monday, two Canadian soldiers were hit by a car driven by Martin Couture-Rouleau, a 25-year-old Canadian who, as The Globe and Mail reported, “converted to Islam recently and called himself Ahmad Rouleau.” One of the soldiers died, as did Couture-Rouleau when he was shot by police upon apprehension after allegedly brandishing a large knife. Police speculated that the incident was deliberate, alleging the driver waited for two hours before hitting the soldiers, one of whom was wearing a uniform. The incident took place in the parking lot of a shopping mall 30 miles southeast of Montreal, “a few kilometres from the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean, the military academy operated by the Department of National Defence.”
The right-wing Canadian government wasted no time in seizing on the incident to promote its fear-mongering agenda over terrorism, which includes pending legislation to vest its intelligence agency, CSIS, with more spying and secrecy powers in the name of fighting ISIS. A government spokesperson asserted “clear indications” that the driver “had become radicalized.”
In a “clearly prearranged exchange,” a conservative MP, during parliamentary question time, asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper (pictured above) whether this was considered a “terrorist attack”; in reply, the prime minister gravely opined that the incident was “obviously extremely troubling.” Canada’s Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney pronounced the incident “clearly linked to terrorist ideology,” while newspapers predictably followed suit, calling it a “suspected terrorist attack” and “homegrown terrorism.” CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti said “the event was the violent expression of an extremist ideology promoted by terrorist groups with global followings” and added: “That something like this would happen in a peaceable Canadian community like Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu shows the long reach of these ideologies.”
In sum, the national mood and discourse in Canada is virtually identical to what prevails in every Western country whenever an incident like this happens: shock and bewilderment that someone would want to bring violence to such a good and innocent country (“a peaceable Canadian community like Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu”), followed by claims that the incident shows how primitive and savage is the “terrorist ideology” of extremist Muslims, followed by rage and demand for still more actions of militarism and freedom-deprivation. There are two points worth making about this:
First, Canada has spent the last 13 years proclaiming itself a nation at war. It actively participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and was an enthusiastic partner in some of the most extremist War on Terror abuses perpetrated by the U.S. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister revealed, with the support of a large majority of Canadians, that “Canada is poised to go to war in Iraq, as [he] announced plans in Parliament  to send CF-18 fighter jets for up to six months to battle Islamic extremists.” Just yesterday, Canadian Defence Minister Rob Nicholson flamboyantly appeared at the airfield in Alberta from which the fighter jets left for Iraq and stood tall as he issued the standard Churchillian war rhetoric about the noble fight against evil.
It is always stunning when a country that has brought violence and military force to numerous countries acts shocked and bewildered when someone brings a tiny fraction of that violence back to that country. Regardless of one’s views on the justifiability of Canada’s lengthy military actions, it’s not the slightest bit surprising or difficult to understand why people who identify with those on the other end of Canadian bombs and bullets would decide to attack the military responsible for that violence.
That’s the nature of war. A country doesn’t get to run around for years wallowing in war glory, invading, rendering and bombing others, without the risk of having violence brought back to it. Rather than being baffling or shocking, that reaction is completely natural and predictable. The only surprising thing about any of it is that it doesn’t happen more often.
The issue here is not justification (very few people would view attacks on soldiers in a shopping mall parking lot to be justified). The issue is causation. Every time one of these attacks occurs — from 9/11 on down — Western governments pretend that it was just some sort of unprovoked, utterly “senseless” act of violence caused by primitive, irrational, savage religious extremism inexplicably aimed at a country innocently minding its own business. They even invent fairy tales to feed to the population to explain why it happens: they hate us for our freedoms.
Those fairy tales are pure deceit. Except in the rarest of cases, the violence has clearly identifiable and easy-to-understand causes: namely, anger over the violence that the country’s government has spent years directing at others. The statements of those accused by the west of terrorism, and even the Pentagon’s own commissioned research, have made conclusively clear what motivates these acts: namely, anger over the violence, abuse and interference by Western countries in that part of the world, with the world’s Muslims overwhelmingly the targets and victims. The very policies of militarism and civil liberties erosions justified in the name of stopping terrorism are actually what fuels terrorism and ensures its endless continuation.
If you want to be a country that spends more than a decade proclaiming itself at war and bringing violence to others, then one should expect that violence will sometimes be directed at you as well. Far from being the by-product of primitive and inscrutable religions, that behavior is the natural reaction of human beings targeted with violence. Anyone who doubts that should review the 13-year orgy of violence the U.S. has unleashed on the world since the 9/11 attack, as well as the decades of violence and interference from the U.S. in that region prior to that.
Second, in what conceivable sense can this incident be called a “terrorist” attack? As I have written many times over the last several years, and as some of the best scholarship proves, “terrorism” is a word utterly devoid of objective or consistent meaning. It is little more than a totally malleable, propagandistic fear-mongering term used by Western governments (and non-Western ones) to justify whatever actions they undertake. As Professor Tomis Kapitan wrote in a brilliant essay in The New York Times on Monday: “Part of the success of this rhetoric traces to the fact that there is no consensus about the meaning of ‘terrorism.’”
But to the extent the term has any common understanding, it includes the deliberate (or wholly reckless) targeting of civilians with violence for political ends. But in this case in Canada, it wasn’t civilians who were targeted. If one believes the government’s accounts of the incident, the driver waited two hours until he saw a soldier in uniform. In other words, he seems to have deliberately avoided attacking civilians, and targeted a soldier instead – a member of a military that is currently fighting a war.
Again, the point isn’t justifiability. There is a compelling argument to make that undeployed soldiers engaged in normal civilian activities at home are not valid targets under the laws of war (although the U.S. and its closest allies use extremely broad and permissive standards for what constitutes legitimate military targets when it comes to their own violence). The point is that targeting soldiers who are part of a military fighting an active war is completely inconsistent with the common usage of the word “terrorism,” and yet it is reflexively applied by government officials and media outlets to this incident in Canada (and others like it in the UK and the US).
That’s because the most common functional definition of “terrorism” in Western discourse is quite clear. At this point, it means little more than: “violence directed at Westerners by Muslims” (when not used to mean “violence by Muslims,” it usually just means: violence the state dislikes). The term “terrorism” has become nothing more than a rhetorical weapon for legitimizing all violence by Western countries, and delegitimizing all violence against them, even when the violence called “terrorism” is clearly intended as retaliation for Western violence.
This is about far more than semantics. It is central to how the west propagandizes its citizenries; the manipulative use of the “terrorism” term lies at heart of that. As Professor Kapitan wrote yesterday in The New York Times:
Even when a definition is agreed upon, the rhetoric of “terror” is applied both selectively and inconsistently. In the mainstream American media, the “terrorist” label is usually reserved for those opposed to the policies of the U.S. and its allies. By contrast, some acts of violence that constitute terrorism under most definitions are not identified as such — for instance, the massacre of over 2000 Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps in 1982 or the killings of more than 3000 civilians in Nicaragua by “contra” rebels during the 1980s, or the genocide that took the lives of at least a half million Rwandans in 1994. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some actions that do not qualify as terrorism are labeled as such — that would include attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah or ISIS, for instance, against uniformed soldiers on duty.
Historically, the rhetoric of terror has been used by those in power not only to sway public opinion, but to direct attention away from their own acts of terror.
At this point, “terrorism” is the term that means nothing, but justifies everything. It is long past time that media outlets begin skeptically questioning its usage by political officials rather than mindlessly parroting it.
Photo: AP/The Canadian Press, Adrian Wyld
UPDATE: Multiple conservative commentators have claimed that this article and my subsequent discussion of it are about this morning’s shooting of a solider in Ottawa. Aside from the fact that what I wrote is expressly about a completely different incident – one that took place in Quebec on Monday – this article and my comments were published before this morning’s shooting spree was reported. So unless someone believes I possess powers of clairvoyance, the claim that I was commenting on the Ottawa shooting – about which virtually nothing is known, including the identity and motive of the shooter(s) – is obviously false.
Then there’s also the extremely predictable accusation that I was justifying the attack on the soldiers. I know from prior experience in discussing these questions that no matter how clear you make it that you are writing about causation and not justification, many will still distort what you write to claim you’ve justified the attack. That’s true even if one makes as clear as the English language permits that you’re not writing about justification: “The issue here is not justification (very few people would view attacks on soldiers in a shopping mall parking lot to be justified). The issue is causation.” If there’s a way to make that any clearer, please let me know.
One more time: the difference between “causation” and “justification” is so obvious that it should require no explanation. If one observes that someone who smokes four packs of cigarettes a day can expect to develop emphysema, that’s an observation about causation, not a celebration of the person’s illness. Only a willful desire to distort, or some deep confusion, can account for a failure to process this most basic point.
UPDATE II: In that brilliant essay I referenced above, published just three days ago in The New York Times, Professor Tomis Kaptian made this point:
Obviously, to point out the causes and objectives of particular terrorist actions is to imply nothing about their legitimacy — that is an independent matter….
That point is so simple and, as he said, “obvious” that I have a hard time understanding what could account for some commentators conflating the two other than a willful desire to mislead.