What is a Terrorist?
Language is such a beautiful thing—but it is open to deeply problematic abuse. Nowhere is this more evident these days than in the lazy ways in which people use the word terrorist.
I’m not just talking about U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s assumption that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Rather, I’m talking about who gets labelled as a terrorist and how the threat they pose is often overstated, as well as about who doesn’t get labelled a terrorist and what that says about our collective priorities.
I’m set to go on a campaign to label rapists Canada’s most menacing terrorists. I might feel differently if I lived in besieged Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, but women in the country where I live face a security threat from men in their own communities that is greater than any imagined threat they face from Islamic State militants.
Who gets labelled a terrorist in the first place? In a series of online posts, prompted by the Washington Post’s comment that white shooter Dylann Roof—the whitesupremacist who killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in July—was not charged with terrorism offences, various commentators distilled the debate in the following way: White mass murderers are automatically referred to as mentally ill, Black mass shooters are seen as criminals and Muslim killers are called terrorists. The racism is plain.
When gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau entered the Parliament Buildings in 2014 after shooting Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial, prime minister Stephen Harper was quick to ratchet up the collective panic. He tried to convince Canadians that ISIS was a major threat to our country and proposed sending planes to the Middle East to bomb all the Islamists to kingdom come.
In Toronto, police board chair Alok Mukherjee responded with this tweet: “Americans killed by Islamic State militants: 3 Americans killed by police: 500+.” This was before the San Bernadino, California, shootings that saw 14 people killed by a couple who may have been extremists, but weren’t directed by Islamic State militants.
Mukherjee’s point was that Harper’s exploitation of the Ottawa shootings was profoundly cynical and that the strategy to engage in all-out military action against Islamic State militants halfway across the world—and, we might add, Harper’s pre-election battle on women who wear the niqab—was a huge overreaction.
Harper couldn’t wait to call the Ottawa attacker a terrorist, but what exactly is a terrorist anyway? Wouldn’t there be just as much validity in using the term terrorist to apply to a rapist? He meets the criteria: His goal is to unlawfully take power; he can immobilize entire populations, much moreso than anyone emulating the San Bernadino shooters. Even if those killings had been directed by Islamic State extremists, would that California spree have subsequently discouraged anyone from going to their workplaces?
Yet, think about the impact of a single sexual predator on an entire community of women. When women hear about a rapist in their communities, they start moving only in well-lit areas, they fear walking alone and tend not to travel late at night.
Even without a specific threat, women often tend to modify their behaviour out of fear of being attacked. See a group of guys heading towards you on the sidewalk? Cross the street. You know you should be allowed to dress how you want, go where you want and hold your head high. But you cover up and keep your head down. No one knows this better than Indigenous women.
As the groundwork for the long-awaited federal inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women—whose numbers, at around 1,200, are greater than the number of supposed terrorist casualties in Canada—is prepared, we can push for the inquiry to take on the systemic racism and sexism that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence, including murder.
It has taken years and a change of government to get action on that file. We’ve known the effects of sexual assault for even longer. Yet xenophobia and irresponsible politicians often minimize the threat of violence to women, and to Indigenous women in particular, on Canadian soil, focusing our attention on a battle that barely touches us.