Monday, October 27, 2014

Canada and Its Home-Grown Terrorists

Sure. I'm mad. Last week Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo both died in apparent terrorist attacks in Canada.

Vincent was run down by a car driven by Martin Couture-Rouleau. Cirillo was shot at point blank range by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Both Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau were recent, radicalized, converts to Islam. Neither one was seriously attached to a Canadian-Muslim community, and both seemed to get most of their information about Islam from jihadi websites. Both came from broken families. Both were loners. Both were unemployed.

Given that he attacked the core symbols of Canadian patriotism and democracy—the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier and the House of Parliament—Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was the most dramatic. The Twitter sphere and the mainline news media were both in overdrive all day.

I don’t blame media for the massive coverage. These two events were tragic, horrific, and just plain evil. Thousands turned out to see Cirillo’s procession down the Highway of Heroes—the sort of procession we hoped never to have to witness again. These horrific acts were also—just as the murderers intended—deeply symbolic. By striking at symbols that we identify with Canada’s best—soldiers, war memorials, parliament—the murderers clearly wanted to undermine our confidence in Canadian values—whatever those are, exactly.

At the same time, I’ve been very disturbed by political developments in the week following.

I’m concerned by the government’s insistence on framing these murders as terrorism—rather than as the complex acts they were. Sure, they were terrorist acts. But we’ll never make Canada a safer, happier place if we limit understanding of what happened to jingoism. There were many other facets to the story. For example, both attackers seem to have struggled with serious mental health issues. Both were, by the measures most of us use, “failures.” And both seem to have chosen Radical Islam not so much out of conviction, but as a way to dramatically leave their problems far behind.

There is an issue of scale. In 2010, just for example, 104 British Columbia traffic fatalities could be attributed to distracted driving—mostly texting while driving. The Canadian total is probably nearly ten times that number. And neither number touches on the thousands of other accidents and the property damage caused by distracted driving. In 2013 more than 700 Canadians died in accidents involving alcohol. First Nations women are five times more likely to be murdered than other women in Canada, but the Prime Minister insists the police can handle this, and that it isn’t a sociological problem. By the government’s own admission an average of seven to ten people are killed by lightning in Canada every year.

But when two people die at the hands of home-grown terrorists who are probably suffering from significant mental illness, we hear these words in parliament, from Steven Blaney, Public Safety Minister. "The first responsibility of the government is to keep Canadians safe. We will not over-react. But it is also time that we stopped under-reacting to the great threats against us." The government promises new, liberty-restricting laws to avoid under-reacting.

On the other hand, get tough laws on texting, inquiries into the deaths of and missing First Nations women, and laws making us safer from lightning—which after all, kills 400% more Canadians than home-grown terroism—are not on this government’s agenda.

Another concern. All the political posturing after the deaths of these two soldiers, including the public displays of sympathy and sadness by our politicians belies the fact that the government has largely failed the many, many soldiers returned from our battles overseas suffering from post-traumatic stress. This failure is regularly documented in the press as individual stories are often told of soldiers driven to despair, homelessness, and suicide in the face of the government’s unwillingness to make PTSD among soldiers a national priority.

Another concern. These two murders, as unjust and evil as they were, are also rooted in a rising tide of anger in the Muslim world with Western military intervention. I’m not offering a simple solution here, such as “well, if we quit bombing Iraq and Iran there wouldn’t be any home-grown Islamic terrorism here.” Still, we need a debate about the wisdom of military intervention in the Middle East; about the consequences and outcome of our involvement in Afghanistan; our unquestioned support for the current Israeli government in spite of its continual encroachment on Palestinian land and rights; and other ways in which we might support democracy and human rights in that region. Somehow, counting on Saudi Arabia as a stalwart ally, even as it exports extreme Wahhabi Islam, doesn’t seem consistent with our Canadian ideals. Unfortunately, talking about failed wars and undemocratic and autocratic allies seems harder than breaking up.

The murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo were horrific and evil. But we must not allow our justified rage obscure the deeper issues surrounding war, foreign policy, and national priorities and embarrassments that we need to address now. It is time for Canadians to demand—not more restrictive laws—but laws and government action that is willing to sacrifice much to live up to our ideals.

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