In 2005 four members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were killed on a farm in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. In 2014 three members were killed on a street in Moncton. Last week two members of our military were run down in a parking lot, and one of them killed. Yesterday another was shot and killed in Ottawa. The word “terrorism” is being used freely to describe the most recent killing, and maybe the one before. I don’t recall it ever being used for the first two.
When does a murderous attack by one deranged or insanely misguided person on those who have put themselves in the line of fire to protect us, become terrorism? When it has a political motive or justification? When it is organized and directed as part of a campaign? When by its nature it tends to frighten people into believing it could happen to them or in their immediate surroundings? When it happens in some place of symbolic importance? When it seems likely to unravel the fabric of society? When a politician decides to call it so?
My dictionary (The Canadian Oxford), defines “terrorism” as: “1 the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, esp. into acceding to specific political demands. 2 an act of terrorizing, esp. continued over an extended period of time; persecution.” I am deeply saddened by the killing in Ottawa yesterday, as I am always by acts of murderous violence, and concerned about over-reaction on the part of the authorities, but I am not terrified.
Brian Stewart, in a sensible article on CBC News this morning (http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/ottawa-parliament-shooting-we-ve-known-this-day-was-coming-1.2809722), draws our attention to warnings by the US army about possible threats to military personnel and “lone-wolf (why ‘lone-wolf’ instead of ‘lone-person’, I wonder) attacks on police, government officials and media figures” in that country, and this warning is no doubt well founded here, but does the risk of free-lance murderous violence by individuals on police and soldiers add up to terrorism? Can something so apparently random be the same as something systematic? Not in any mathematics I ever studied.
What frightens me is the risk that inherently among all the wonderfully diverse, creative, humane, and fulfilling possibilities nurtured in contemporary society thrives a set that encourages derangement and insane misguidance of murderous kinds, and that if we over-react to it we will dilute or even lose the wonderful ones too. Freedom of speech and thought means, unfortunately, the freedom to think and even speak in deranged and insanely misguided ways. When they spill over into action, as they will from time to time, we do not need to scream terror, but calmly get on with our lives and let our police, judiciary and mental-medical institutions do the work we have entrusted to them.
The late Isaac Newton, in his Third Law, tells us that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. That’s “equal and opposite”, fitted to the real size and nature of the action, not “hysterical and excessive”.
As one of my correspondents put it yesterday: “So, a sad day in the country today. I am not looking forward to some of the rhetoric we’re going to hear over the next few days, and I particularly wish that people would drop the notion that today’s events mark some sort of massive change in the fabric of Canada. They don’t, or at least they don’t need to.” Amen to that.