This past week, there have been two lethal attacks on Canadian soldiers right here at home, the two perpetrators are dead, and we’re drowning in words.
The shootings in Ottawa, taking place as they did in areas so familiar to me (the War Memorial and the Centre Block), are still very much with me, as they are with so many others; and, as the dust settles, all-too-familiar memes are being imposed upon those events.
Being human, we like to make sense of things. We crave explanations. Out of a dust-cloud of reports, stories, rumours and unanswered questions, some of which remain that way —How did the shooter get his weapon? How did he hide it while he was at a local shelter? How did he get into the Centre Block?—we hope that the outlines, at least, of a coherent story will eventually emerge. But we are not always interested in digging too deeply to get one. An official narrative will do fine for most people.
What would that look like? First, it would contain a threatening Other. Second, it would be another chapter in a clash-of-civilizations-type narrative of terrorism—there are no neutrals in that Manichaean conflict. Third, it would reject rational explanation-seeking in favour of a primarily moral discourse. It would be a tub-thumping, mobilizing narrative, imbued with a politics of patriotism that would wave aside serious analysis as a distraction.
So, first of all, the accounts of the shape-shifting, malign Other, variously identified as Aboriginal, “South American” coloured, “Arabic”-looking, and so on, came fast and furious. This author was quick off the mark: the perpetrator’s ethnicity, apparently not sufficiently “neutral,” became a focus of Wednesday’s reportage. When the man’s photograph appeared, though, he just looked like a scruffy white guy.
The two killers (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, né Michael Joseph Hall, and Martin Couture-Rouleau who ran down a soldier in Quebec earlier) were strikingly similar in many respects. They were both born in Canada. Zehaf-Bibeau was a down-and-outer who had found a berth at the Ottawa Mission. He had a petty criminal record, and had done a little time. Couture-Rouleau ran a small pressure-washing business. Both were relatively recent converts to Islam, expressing their admiration for ISIS on Facebook. Zehaf-Bibeau was not considered high-priority by CSIS and was not on the RCMP’s 90-person watchlist. His application for a passport had, however, been red-flagged. Couture-Rouleau was on that list, and his passport was confiscated as he tried to leave the country for Turkey.
The authorities were alerted to Couture-Rouleau by his own family. This being Canada, police officers visited him, with family members and his imam, over a period of four months to try to talk him out of his beliefs. To the “false flag” nutters who have begun to emerge from their hidey-holes—sorry, folks, COINTELPRO this ain’t.
Hardly the dark-bodied aliens that pose an eternal threat to Our Way of Life, these were native-born Canadians instead, both with little to show for their lives, spending too much time on the Internet, rather too easily mobilized by psychopaths overseas urging them to make themselves count for the Greater Good. I expect that, had they survived, we’d be hearing in the future something very like what Mark Chapman had to say about his killing of John Lennon: “I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory.”
But their adoption of Islam and ISIS will, in any case, suffice to mark them as Other, even if it’s a mere cloak of Otherness worn by a pair of otherwise nondescript Canadians.
Moving on to the terrorism frame, certainly both killers terrorized people, even if, atypically, they concentrated on military, not civilian targets (unlike, for example, Obama’s dronemasters, who don’t count as terrorists). For whatever reason, they had both recently converted to Islam, but to a crazed form of it that Canadian Muslims, and indeed Muslim countries, by and large reject. Even Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, which routinely beheads scores of people for crimes such as “sorcery,” finds ISIS a bit much.
In any case, these men were weaponized by ISIS, if indirectly, and did what was expected of them. Their brutal acts will accomplish little in themselves except to strengthen the hand of our Conservative government to bring in repressive new security measures and speech restrictions that will further erode our civil rights. If the terrorists truly “hate us for our freedoms,” I suspect they’re about to hate us a little less. We’ll almost certainly get more of this kind of thing on the ground, and, as people are told to report anything unusual to the police, stories like this will cease to be amusing. When these changes on the horizon do come to pass, then, the effectiveness of terrorism—to bring about major changes with minimum effort—will once again be demonstrated.
But the notion of terrorism is also a moral one. If you see the world as divided into two eternally warring camps, black versus white, Us versus Them, then everyone is involved. These two rather undistinguished Canadians now take their place as soldiers themselves, for the other side. Unwittingly, then, we’ve given them everything they wished for: instead of a well-deserved ignominy, they have won the recognition they were seeking.
Which brings me to my third point: want to step back and look at these events in a wider context, inviting others to do the same? Don’t even try: this kind of stupid rejoinder, from people who should and likely do know better, is typical. American civil liberties expert Glenn Greenwald gives it a shot here (written, it’s important to note, before the Ottawa shootings); but this amounts, we are told, to “justifying” these attacks, to saying that Canada “had it coming.”
At first, I suspected reading incomprehension—or a deliberate political smear job from people with apparent axes to grind. There’s certainly some of the latter at play. The American commentator Joshua Foust, for example, whose personal hatred for Greenwald knows no bounds, certainly not those of decency or civility, immediately accused him of “celebrating terrorism”—a blatantly dishonest misreading of what Greenwald actually had to say.
On reflection, however, I think that in many cases it’s literally a matter of talking past each other. There is a problem here of incommensurable discourses, the moral and the analytical. Where Greenwald says that we shouldn’t be surprised our involvement in war for the past 13 years might lead to this sort of thing, an eminently commonsensical, even banal, observation, others hear “Canada had it coming,” and see a pointed finger of “blame.” But those last are moral observations that Greenwald isn’t making. As he puts it himself, it’s not a question of justification, but of causation: telling a 4-pack a day smoker that he will get emphysema is not a justification of emphysema.
But as a case in point, a rejoinder by Professor Stephen Saideman of Carleton University is worth a look. He mockingly retorts that Greenwald’s article is just a re-run of the South Park episode, Blame Canada. And he proceeds, with a blend of ad hominem, distortion and tendentious interpretation, to completely miss Greenwald’s core argument.
Unhappy with Greenwald’s view, one widely shared, that the word “terrorism” means at this point whatever states want it to mean, Saideman sidesteps the key point that it never seems to apply when Western powers terrorize Muslims. Telling us that terrorism is most often found within a group (Muslim on Muslim violence, for example) only reinforces Greenwald’s point: the term hasn’t been used to characterize the state terror recently unleashed in Egypt, for example, with its tidal wave of death sentences. Even in that context, then, the label continues to apply only when the West so chooses.
Saideman continues: “One point Greenwald wants to make is that the CF personnel targeted on Monday were legitimate targets.” Greenwald “crow[ed] about how earned this violence was,” he claims. But here is what Greenwald actually says: “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.” This is the explicit opposite of what Saideman so confidently asserts.
Saideman concludes—tellingly—that he is “not sure what the take away should be from Greenwald’s argument.” And he can’t resist a parting ad hominem: “his trolling of Canada is probably aimed at inflating the number of clicks he received. His intent clearly is not to inform.”
Saideman seems suspiciously familiar with what Greenwald really wants to say (the opposite, it seems, of what he actually says), and what he intends. He is ostensibly using an analytical frame to counter Greenwald’s arguments, but it quickly becomes clear—in fact, right from his “Blame Canada” lede—that in tone and substance he is actually putting up an indignant moral response to rebut something that isn’t there.
One final note: let’s jettison for all time the notion of the “lone wolf.” Nobody ever acts alone. Our speech and our acts are the complex product of the society of which we are a part. So, for example, when Marc Lépine gunned down sixteen women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, his personal rage was clearly shaped by widely prevalent misogyny and anti-feminism. To point that out at the time, though, was to invite the rejoinder that he was just a “lone crazy,” somehow detached from the wider social milieu, and that it was being unduly “political” even to suggest that we examine that milieu in the wake of his murders. (As an aside, what will the foaming nutjobs who keep reminding us that Lépine’s birth name was Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi make of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s birth name—Michael Joseph Hall?)
This was a cop-out by people who didn’t want to take on the task of addressing sexism in society—and in themselves. (Had he singled out and slaughtered, say, Jewish students, I suspect there would have been somewhat less ambivalence.) But in any case, the two killers this past week found something in a grotesque parody of Islam to motivate them and give their lives meaning. Unlike the Montreal event, however, there is no culture war raging in Canada for us to address here. Instead, we need to look at what social and psychological factors are involved in the kind of disaffection and alienation that both of these men demonstrated, and how best we might counter the outcome, by nipping it in the bud. But we also need to face the possibility that it can’t always be done, whatever measures we put in place.
In a country of 35 million, the 90 people on the RCMP watchlist are a vanishingly small part of the population, an indication that we as a society are already overwhelmingly successful in rejecting violent and destructive extremism. But as we have seen, one single person can do unspeakable damage, not only to other people, but, on an on-going basis, to the delicate balance between state power and citizen freedom. It’s not too soon to ask if ever-tighter security measures and restrictions are the way to go: but given the not-surprising tough talk from the government at the moment, the two feckless individuals who killed two soldiers this week are continuing to wreak their havoc on the nation.