On Sunday, January 29th Alexandre Bissonnette went into a Quebec City mosque and took the lives of six people. The 27-year old University of Laval student injured another nineteen, five of whom are still in critical condition. The Canadian government was quick to call the attack an act of terrorism, and the Canadian public was left reeling at the worst act of violence in recent memory.
Accounts of Bissonnette’s recent activity online and in person revealed that he had become ‘radicalized’ in the brand of xenophobia and nationalism espoused by Marine LePen, who had recently visited Quebec. His classmates also gave accounts of Bissonette as a Trump supporter, and that his loud and frequent clashes at school had made him something of a pariah.
He has subsequently been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and awaits trial later this year. There is little doubt that he will be convicted.
However, whether he will be convicted of terrorism, or even charged with it, is still a matter of some debate. The prevailing sentiment in the Canadian legal community is that charging him with terror will diminish chances of his conviction under that charge and draw out the legal process unnecessarily. Criminal lawyer Eric Stutton told the CBC, “He's facing multiple charges of murder, and the potential sentence goes beyond whatever could be imposed on him even if he was charged with terrorist activities. There’s no real purpose.”
But there is a purpose. To name this act what it is, terror and nothing else, is important. Terror which, incidentally, is defined in Canada as an act committed "for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause" that has "the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public with regard to its security." If an attack on a religious institution can have any other intention or objective, I welcome the insight. Calling this attack terrorism, and not a murder or the act of a ‘lone wolf’ or lunatic, is essential to dismantling the apparatus of hate that produced it.
But, of course, there’s an underlying reason that the Canadian government and the courts of Quebec will not charge Bissonnette with terrorism; if they do, they will be tacitly linking the ideologies of the Trumps and LePens around the world with terrorism. There is a danger in admitting that Canada’s closest allies are a breeding ground for terrorist ideology.
The reluctance to prosecute Bissonnette as a terrorist, to place him firmly in the category we all so roundly condemn, is symptomatic of why the climate of hate is allowed to thrive in North America. We do not want to see ourselves as its enablers, or indeed its source.
But we are. It is no coincidence that 29 hate crimes were reported in the 48 hours following the attack. Many people felt affirmed in their beliefs and encouraged to act within a community. According to the American Psychological Association, this is a typical phenomenon with terrorist causes.
These people acted as part of a community of hate.
We allow that hate to spread by calling it by other names. I cannot count the number of times my liberal friends have dismissed Donald Trump or Marine LePen as ‘crazy’ or a ‘nutcase,' a ‘lunatic’ or a ‘psychopath.' They called Alexandre Bissonnette the same thing in the wake of the shooting. And therein lies the problem, because neither man is a lunatic or a psychopath.
Now, you may say that the conflation of a murderer and the president is unfair, and I grant you there may be some truth to that, but I submit for your consideration the American Psychological Association’s conditions for recruitment into terrorist organizations:
- Feeling angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
- Believing that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
- Identifying with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
- Feeling the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
- Believing that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
- Having friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
- Believing that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.
The nationalistic, America-first ideologues, seem – on paper – to exhibit a lot of the characteristics one would expect to find in a young radical ready to be indoctrinated in a terrorist organization. That’s because these qualities are not unique to foreign terrorists, a group that we still tend to think of overwhelmingly as Muslim and trying to get into America.
The reality is that the seeds of radicalization and terror are being sown well within the confines of increasingly closed borders. People feel disenfranchised; they are angry at their poverty and station, they have lost faith in a broken political system, they are told that a specific group (immigrants, Muslims, the elite, etc.) are responsible. When Sean Spicer took the podium in the wake of the Montreal attack and said, “It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the president is taking steps to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security.” Was that a terrible, self-aware moment of realization?
In an article on terrorism for Psychology Today, Dr. Steven Taylor said, “psychologists who have studied terrorist groups have found that terrorists tend to be stable individuals, not paranoid or delusional.” These people are not crazy, they are rational and have come to embrace an ideology of hate that is hiding behind nationalism, patriotism or the ire of their peers.
It’s about time we started taking them seriously and calling the hate and terror what it really is.