It was terrible, but was the Ottawa attack terrorism?

Canada’s Prime Minister, along with CNN and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network, and now even the White House, are all referring to the horrible shooting in Ottawa, Canada last night as “terrorism.”

But was it really?

In case you hadn’t heard, a lone gunman opened fire yesterday, and killed, a soldier standing guard at the Canadian National War Memorial.

He then went into the parliament building, shot a guard, and was gunned down before being able to harm anyone else.

But was it terrorism?

I’ve written about this topic before, about whether some of us are prone to label violence “terrorism” if there’s a hint of a connection to Islam. In this case, the shooter-suspect was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a “reported” recent convert to Islam.

But what makes this terrorism, if we don’t yet have a connection to a known terrorist organization? And is such a connection even necessary? If it’s not, then how does this attack differ from some nut just opening fire because he’s some nut? Was it terrorism when Adam Lanza murdered nearly two dozen small children at Sandy Hook Elementary? Or was it not terrorism simply because Lanza chose an elementary school rather than a government building?

There was a second “terrorist” attack in Canada earlier in the week. More from CBN:

Wednesday’s act of Islamic terror in Ottawa came just two days after another recent convert to Islam ran over two soldiers near Montreal with his car.

Ran over them with his car?

Not to minimize the deadly damage a car can cause a human body, but using a car to run over a pedestrian doesn’t sound terribly Al Qaeda.

As for the murder at the war memorial, and the attack on the parliament, CNN reports that the shooter had reportedly talked about being stalked by the devil and demons:

Mr. Bathurst said Zehaf-Bibeau did not appear to be an extremist, but was “erratic” and exhibited strange behavior. “We were having a conversation in a kitchen, and I don’t know how he worded it: He said the devil is after him,” Bathurst said, adding that Zehaf-Bibeau talked frequently about Shaytan, or Satan, being a presence in the world. “I think he must have been mentally ill,” Bathurst said.

He sounds like a nut. And while that doesn’t preclude him from also being a terrorist, it, again, doesn’t sound like the kind of people we usually think of when we think “terrorist.”

As I’ve written before, it’s not easy defining terrorism. Some cases, like September 11, are obvious. Others, less so. And while no one wants to lessen the impact of these crimes, it’s important that we use the right language, lest the phrase “terrorism” become meaningless.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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34 Responses to “It was terrible, but was the Ottawa attack terrorism?”

  1. carla874 says:

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  2. Eric Janssen says:

    Was it terrorism ? No , it was act of a lunatic craving attention , who
    happens to be muslim. But what amazes me is how the American media
    immediately can turn this “local” incident into a national crisis. If Islam really was religion full of extremist fanatics, who believe in an eye for eye. America would have been under siege by now.
    America has bombed the middle and far east for more then decade now. But
    it seems that islam turned a cheek. And if one looney “muslim” with a
    gun, can raise terror alert to code red ,scaring a whole nation. It looks to me, someone having problems with a guilty conscience.

  3. quax says:

    Thank goodness there are still some differences between Canada and the US:

  4. quax says:

    “An act of “terrorism” is a planned event, with organized activities and
    anticipated goals, all in pursuit of some political/societal outcome. In
    other words, an act of terrorism requires intent and reason.”

    The killer certainly planned this in advance as he was very intent to get himself a car although he lived in a homeless shelter at the time. The fact that he didn’t have his own place to stay means that getting hands on a gun also required some level of planning. This was not a spontaneous act. While at the same time known to preach his version of Islam to other homeless shelter occupants and boasting that he was on a no-fly list, gives ample of reason to believe that he followed IS(IL)’s call to kill Westerners in their homeland.

    Hence my conclusion that he was a nutter who aspired to be a terrorist.

  5. quax says:

    No “radicalized”means to hold a belief system that execmpts the individual from following a society’s written and unwritten laws.

  6. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I certainly considered that possibility. However, Blackbird is an unknown element with his/her comments set to privacy. If he/she wants to make snarky comments, he/she may want to add something like “/snark” at the end of their comments.

  7. goulo says:

    I think Blackbird was parodying right wing talking points.

    Parody/satire is always risky in political comment threads, due to Poe’s Law.

  8. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Huh? Does Obama control other countries? You do realize that Canada is another country?

  9. quax says:

    Wasn’t aware that Obama’s job description entails to watch over Canada. Think we can do this on own up here.

  10. Blackbird says:

    It’s perfectly clear that he’s definitely a terrorist.

    After the elections in a week… we’ll reopen that file and look into this more openly and without prejudice. But for now… TERRORIST!
    And let’s keep in mind that this happened during Obama’s watch.

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  12. Hue-Man says:

    I failed to mention one group that was terrorized in fact – the people who work in the Parliament Buildings, i.e. their workplace. Almost all of Canada’s 306 MPs would have been in their regular Wednesday caucus meetings. That meant that their staffs would also have been in the building plus the hundreds of reporters for print and TV/radio. In many cases, the shots fired were within meters of these individuals.

  13. Hue-Man says:

    Being a firm believer that “terrorism” has been abused through overuse in that past decade, I differentiate the Ottawa killing from the Quebec attack. Using an automobile as a deadly weapon almost shouts “sole perp”. An attack on the Parliament Buildings however raises the same uncertainties that U.S. authorities faced on 9/11 – what other attacks, if any, are part of this terrorist plot?

    That said, I’m finding it hard to put either attacker in the “terrorist” category. The individual in Quebec was visited by police on October 9th, his family tried to get help in dealing with his radical thinking, and the method of attack was less than amateurish (everyone in Canada has at least one knife). Similarly, the Ottawa attacker had a criminal background, moved around the country living in homeless shelters; the cowardly attack on the soldier and the aimless shooting within Parliament almost have a high-profile “suicide by cop” feeling. (His Quebecoise mother, a senior government bureaucrat working in multiculturalism, issued a condolence and apology letter.)

    We’ve all known acquaintances or family who have been drawn into religious and other cults. In my own experience, I have no understanding why a sibling joined an extreme fundamentalist sect. Are they inherently weak people who are drawn by the positive attractions of cult leaders and cult propaganda? As to these particular events, are they the ultimate manifestation of today’s celebrity/notoriety culture?

  14. quax says:

    Yes, because life under the Taliban in Afghanistan was just peachy. And it’s not like they harbored Osama …

    Probably equally hopeless to point out to you that the majority of the civilian victims of IS(IL) are Muslims (especially Shia) who don’t subscribe to their extremist caricature of Islam (not that they also wipe out other minorities that they consider devil worshipers like the Yazidis).

  15. quax says:

    “Was he a terrorist, or just a nut?”

    Is there an unwritten law that says that he can’t be both?

  16. mark_in_toronto says:

    If he were christian, buddhist or hindu, would the “T” word have been used? I doubt it.
    They have also been using the word “radicalized” – which obviously is used when someone crosses-over to a less-than-white, non-western belief.
    The media are adding fuel to the fire with their fear-mongering, sensationalism and blatant prejudice.

  17. jm2 says:

    well, it’s ‘terrorism’ because the Midterm Election is 12 days away! ‘nuf said?

  18. arcadesproject says:

    When the story first started coming out, I said to myself, ‘Prolly a nutter.’ When the facts were in, it turned out that it was a nutter. There’s no reason to change your laws or your customs or your life cuz of a nutter. Though you might quite sensibly look into how you are dealing with mental illness in your community and if your dealings are inadequate, upgrade them.

  19. Indigo says:

    I guess I can go along with a suggestion that the Devil is the ultimate terrorist but that seems more like Crazy Talk than anything else. What bothers me, regardless of demonic or political or religious or crazed motivation, is the fact that the shooter managed to do it. We are not safe. That’s the message. Civil courtesies are swept aside by blogging bullies just as easily as gun-owners pull triggers and government officials guide drones into wedding parties. There are monsters among us and they are also human beings, possessed by devils or political agenda or just downright mean, they are dangerous and we can’t do much about it. That’s what’s so scary. It comes down to the kind of prophetic speech, with deity or not, that claims our civilization is imploding. Perhaps it is.

  20. nicho says:

    The difference is becoming less and less clear since Harper and his fascists took over and joined forces with the fascists in DC.

  21. ckg1 says:

    This from the same person who seemed to imply that Canada “deserved” it. (Glenn, not Max, just to make it clear.)

  22. Naja pallida says:

    In the US ‘terrorism’ is a term you put on the paperwork to justify any response the authorities wish to implement… sadly, under Harper’s government, which is essentially George W. Bush lite, it’s much the same. I will judge my response to the question posed by John based on their reaction (or over reaction) to this tragedy. If they are determined to be terrorized, then I guess it becomes terrorism.

  23. GarySFBCN says:

    An immature, delusional, unhinged nutcase with a Jihad fetish lashed out. He probably couldn’t even spell Afghanistan. Your highly readable but ridiculous “justification” is equally fetish-like: It must be very “satisfying” to think that there is justice in what is probably an act motivated by some chemical imbalance.

    Consider a career in fiction.

  24. Max_1 says:

    Reflections on a violent day in Ottawa

    Like those in Afghanistan who suffered 13 years of Canadian bombardment (upwards of a billion Canadian bullets fired), night raids, transfers to torture, and the daily indignities of life under military occupation, those Parliamentarians with the power to declare war — and send somebody else overseas to fight it for them — felt, in a relatively limited fashion, what it’s like for millions of the world’s war-weary populations. The image of a cowering John Baird or Jason Kenney hiding in a barricaded office must have proven a stark contrast to the swaggering, macho manner in which these men urged Canada to declare war on ISIS, further fuelling the flames of fear and hatred against Muslims.


  25. Max_1 says:

    Oh… like our Shock and Awe on Baghdad in 2003?

  26. UncleBucky says:

    Nut behaviour that resembles terrorism, but even if it was inspired by ISIS as a copycat crime, ISN’T.

  27. DonewithDems says:

    One of the official definitions of terrorism is: the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. I think anytime some creep uses violence to further a political cause whether he is part of an organized group or government or acts on his own, he’s a terrorist. It’s early days yet for the verdict on the shooter in Ottowa, but I suspect that his conversion to Islam is not just circumstantial evidence. And, what difference is there between a man using a car to run down a Canadian soldier in Quebec and a man using a machete to hack down a British soldier in the streets of London? I don’t think it’s any different than the Christofascist who killed the abortion surgeon in Wichita, KS for that matter. All of these perpetrators are nuts, yes, but they’re using violence to intimidate others to act how they want them to act. I’m not condoning the media panic and over use of the word terrorism, but anyone who commits this kind of violence in the name of furthering their causes, are terrorists and should be treated as such. Be they organized in large groups or acting alone, they are one in the same IMHO.

  28. Doug105 says:

    Can’t be both?

  29. nicho says:

    An act of “terrorism” is a planned event, with organized activities and anticipated goals, all in pursuit of some political/societal outcome.

    So, the US invasion of Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US destabilization of Ukraine, the US bombing of Syria, Lybia, etc. would all be terrorist acts?

  30. Of course, this is Canada, not the US :)

  31. nicho says:

    There are about 120 definitions of “terrorism” on the table — even among anti-terrorism groups. Unfortunately, they can’t settle on one, because under most of them, the US qualifies as a terrorist state. In the US lexicon, “terrorism” is when someone does something we don’t like — and we need an excuse for taking away liberties or committing our own violent acts.

  32. S1AMER says:

    An act of “terrorism” is a planned event, with organized activities and anticipated goals, all in pursuit of some political/societal outcome. In other words, an act of terrorism requires intent and reason beyond some person setting out to kill and maim people and destroy property just because.

    I’d reserve the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” to those persons and deeds aimed at achieving some specific political or societal outcome (however hard it may be to identify that outcome when the person is dead). The Boston marathon bombers were clearly terrorists (though not, perhaps, enitrely clear on what they hoped to gain). The Sandy Hook school shooter was most definitely not a terrorist (however much his messed-up head apparently told him he could accomplish by killing a bunch of kids).

    “Terrorism” and “terrorist” are not words to be used lightly. Some people are just sick, deluded fucks.

  33. BeccaM says:

    I always ask, “What is the motivation behind those who would use the term in these gray situations?”

    More and more these days, it seems to be based more on desires to remove the individual and the crime from established systems of justice and prosecution and exempt them from any kind of Constitutional protections. Ideological motivation alone doesn’t necessarily make an act one of ‘terrorism.’ In the case of authoritarian-minded powers-that-be, the invocation of these extreme words is very often accompanied by requests for more power and less accountability.

    Terrorist. WMDs. Illegal combatant. Insurgent. Enhanced interrogation.

    All of these terms are being expanded and misused by those who would be unfettered from being bound by the rule of law.

    I would say, John, that it’s not just important we use the right language, else terms become ‘meaningless,’ but also to recognize when demagogues are attempting to use the language of fear and terror themselves for their own agendas.

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