In The Media

The perils of crying wolf on terrorism

by Pierre Martin

The Toronto Star
November 3, 2014

Since the tragic events of last week in Saint-Jean and Ottawa, we hear lots of talk of “lone wolves” and terrorism. So far, it seems obvious that the two individuals involved were loners, but must we really cry wolf by brandishing the spectre of terrorism?

In our view, it is premature and exaggerated to designate these two deadly attacks as terrorist acts until credible connections are made between a known terrorist organization and the perpetrators.

For the moment, we know very little about the motivations behind these acts. At first glance, they are similar to the episodes of 1984 at Québec’s National Assembly or in September 2012 at an election-night rally in Montréal. In both cases, the intended victims of these “lone wolves” were politicians, and their motivations were “political,” but no one labelled their murderous acts as “terrorism.”

A terrorist attack is an act of war. It is planned, organized, and part of a larger design. A criminal act that purports to draw its inspiration from a religious or political movement does not necessarily constitute an act of terrorism, even less an act of war.

Some analysts allege that the phenomenon of “spontaneous terrorism” might apply to last week’s events. Some political movements, such as Hamas in Palestine, openly exhort their sympathizers to inflict harm on opponents. Everyone is thus incited to strike an “enemy” whenever and wherever possible. In Israel, for example, a series of such improvised violent incidents have made numerous victims in the last few months.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), through its online magazine Dabiq, recently called for a similar mobilization against all the countries that are fighting in Iraq or Syria. Dabiq stated explicitly that “the citizens of crusader nations should be targeted wherever they can be found.”

In that light, the notion that improvised attacks in Canada may be linked to some form of broader terrorist design is not pure fantasy, but that doesn’t mean we should mindlessly jump to such conclusions.

In order for a campaign of “spontaneous terror” to be credible, it has to reach a broad base of people that may be sensitive to its appeal. For example, Palestinians in Israel are an ideal recruitment pool. Muslim communities in France and Britain also offer a vast potential audience for ISIS propaganda. There may also be a base in Canada for this type of “homegrown terrorism”, but the potential problem is not nearly as preoccupying as it is in Israel, or may become in Europe.

By hastily elevating the events of last week to the status of terrorist acts, too many of Canada’s opinion leaders are dancing to the tune of organizations such as ISIS, whose very goal is to instill and nurture irrational fear and panic.

In this perspective, some media reactions were excessive, if not downright irresponsible, as they inflated these events out of proportion, notably by calling them acts of Islamic terrorism against our institutions. No dramatic comment was spared after the Ottawa shootings. Some drew direct parallels with 9/11, others claimed that Canada “lost its innocence”, that it “will never be the same”, or that the attacks “struck at the country’s heart,” as if to generate a mini-crisis of collective hysteria.

In the past week, some have even suggested that Canada is at war at home. That is nonsense. Places like Israel, Syria or Ukraine really are at war. Our situation has nothing to do with a state of war. Do we really need the kind of atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia that prevailed in the U.S. after 9-11? Who would benefit from that?

Even if Canada’s political leaders showed some measure of dignity in the wake of a shooting rampage that could have turned a lot worse, it would be naïve to believe that the Harper government will refrain from using these events to justify its policies, or attempt to prop up its poll numbers by branding itself as the only party able to defend Canadians against the barbarians hiding in their midst.

In the end, stoking the fear of terrorism may be like crying wolf. In the long run, if you keep crying wolf when there’s no real wolf around, it tends to be counterproductive. 

Michel Fortmann and Pierre Martin are professors of political science at the Université de Montréal and members of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. Pierre Martin is also a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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