Canada·Analysis

We've been terrorized, that's why they call it terrorism

Somewhere in this country someone is probably daydreaming about, or even planning, an act of politically inspired mass murder. When the time comes, how will Canada respond to an attack on the scale of Paris or San Bernardino on its home soil?

How will Canadians react to a San Bernardino-style attack on our home soil when the time comes?

Amid the the massacres in Paris, mass shootings in the U.S. and ISIS videos of beheadings and immolations, Canada went down a tunnel of fear for most of 2015. (The Associated Press)

This isn't a very Christmas-y thought, but somewhere in this country, somebody who couldn't care less about Christmas is probably daydreaming about, or even planning, an act of politically inspired mass murder.

That is reportedly the assessment of Canada's Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, which last summer set the likelihood of an attack in several Canadian cities at medium — meaning there are people with the capability and intent, and that those people could act.

And why not? Why should Canada be any different from the United States, Great Britain, France or Spain, all of which are allies in the half-baked war against ISIS, all of which have suffered pitiless attacks on their civilian populations?

The question is, how will Canadians handle it when it comes?

Will we take the rational view, which would be to absorb the blow and put it in perspective? Canada has, after all, had all sorts of mass murders in schools, multiple police slayings, serial rapist/murderers and drive-by gang killings, and we've dealt with the perpetrators. Most of them are dead or in prison, and we've moved on without disruption to our civil society.

Or would we take the raw fear view, which is that terrorism threatens all of us every single day, and that we are at war with an entire ethno-religious group, and it's just too much for our justice system to handle, so we must give up more freedoms and give our police even more powers and shut our doors to immigrants and intensify racial profiling?

Confronted with a large-scale extremist attack at home, would Canadians absorb the blow and put it in perspective? Or take the view that terrorism threatens all of us every single day? (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Would our television programs feature crawls across the bottom of the screens screaming "Terror"? Would our mainstream media lose its critical faculties, the way the American media did after 9/11? Would such an attack disrupt our society on just about every level?

Probably more the latter than the former, given our behaviour in the year we are about to put behind us. It was a year of fear for the Western world, more so than any year since 9/11.

And, fear being what it is, it was not rational. The very fact that Donald Trump is riding to the top of the polls in America is evidence.

And despite what a lot of Canadians might like to think, we aren't much different.

Fear poured in

Canada has suffered far less extremist violence than several other Western countries, and yet many of us, led by our former government, dove down a tunnel of fear for most of 2015.

We let an unhinged character who shot one soldier in Ottawa at the end of 2014, and an extremist who ran down and killed another in Quebec a few days earlier, push us into passing a sprawling new "anti-terror" bill.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attack in Ottawa in 2014 helped pave the way for the government's sprawling 'anti-terror' bill. (Twitter)
Well, it was more than that, really. Fear poured in from outside, too — from the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris, the videos of beheadings and immolations and ISIS gunmen exalting death and their god, and the second wave of attacks in Paris last month.

On the periphery of our vision, because our media places far more value on Western life, fear also flowed from the bombings in Beirut, the attacks in Mali, and the endless explosions and carnage in Baghdad.

Fear also wafted up from America, which just a few weeks ago went through the deadliest extremist attack since 9/11.

The normally stoic, non-alarmist New York Times, which polled roughly 5,000 of its readers after the San Bernardino shooting, recently ran this headline: "Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders."

"The killings are happening too often," began the story. "Bunched too close together. At places you would never imagine."

The story went on to conclude that Americans are "engulfed in a collective fear … The fear of the ordinary. Going to work. Eating a meal in a restaurant. Sending children to school. Watching a movie."

An extremist's candy store

Of course, the events in San Bernardino took on the significance they did only because the attackers were radicalized Muslims. So many mass shootings occur in America that they aren't big news anymore, unless they involve murders of worshippers in a church, or students, or patients at a Planned Parenthood clinic (all of which happened in 2015).

Like all the other attackers, the San Bernardino shooters loaded up on the guns and ammo that are so easily available in America. In that sense, the United States is an extremist's candy store, but Americans don't tend to look at it that way. In any event, their gun lobby is determined that nothing will change; Americans have many admirable traits, but a sense of irony isn't one of them.

San Bernardino shooters Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook, loaded up on the guns and ammo that are so easily available in America. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection via AP)

Back to Canada, though. The man who championed our fear, Stephen Harper, is now gone, along with his niqab ban, and his "barbaric cultural practices" hotline, and his warnings that militants operating out of a "terrorist war zone" stalk all of us all the time.

But a lot of us bought into it.

And the underlying fear of a human wave, mostly Muslim, emanating out of the Middle East into the West, remains.

We Canadians congratulate ourselves for welcoming refugees, even as a slew of American governors declare their states closed to them, period, and nativist voters there cheer the idea of a Muslim registry.

But if the people among us in Canada who incubate dreams of mass attacks actually carry one out, how differently will we act? Remember 1970: martial law nationwide because of one body in the trunk of a car in Quebec and the kidnapping of a British diplomat.

Perhaps fear is the normal human condition. It certainly was for most of the centuries leading into the second millennium.

Merry Christmas, in any event. May the common sense, compassion and rational humanism we claim to embrace as a nation endure, come what may.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.