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Arguing Semantics in the Face of Danger

For one brief shining moment in Canada  last week, our political leaders were united.

On the day following the shooting of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and the subsequent attack by Michael Zehaf Bibeau on Parliament, our leaders stood together to condemn the attacks and to tell the world that Canadians would not be intimidated. They even shook hands and exchanged hugs after their speeches in a show of solidarity.

It was too good to last.

This week, they are arguing over the word terrorist as if somehow semantics are the key to our national security.

Both the Liberals and the Conservatives refer to last week’s attacks as terrorism. The NDP do not. They think it was a criminal act by someone who had serious mental health issues. This, of course, has triggered more bickering and finger-pointing over the use of a word when they should be engaged in serious and thoughtful discussion on how to protect this nation.

I think that the NDP’s opinion is inaccurate but they’re entitled to it. I think Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have correctly identified that this was a terrorist attack by a so-called lone wolf. But it’s just semantics. Every terrorist act, whether by a group or an individual, is a criminal act. Arguing over a how to label or what to call it is absurd.

Is Justin Bourque who went on a shooting rampage and shot three members of the RCMP any less a threat than Michael Zehaf Bibeau? Is an attack on members of the RCMP any less a terrorist act than the shooting of Cpl. Cirillo? Is the shooting of Cpl. Cirillo any less a criminal act? Labels will not change what took place.

Surely to God the issue is that our security protocols and intelligence apparatus need a significant review and some serious improvement.

This obsession with definitions pervades government thinking.

Daycare is now Early Childhood Education. Has that changed the nature of colouring, sandbox and nap time or just the associated costs? Police, fire fighters and paramedics are now First Responders. Are they responding any more quickly to emergencies? Indian Affairs is now Aboriginal Affairs and we can all see how quickly that name change cleaned up issues with First Nations in this country.


“Defining terrorism in ways which clearly focus on the essence of the problem and distinguish it from other more conventional forms of crime, for the purposes of determining the application of criminal liability and investigative and preventive measures, represents a major challenge for the international community and for legislatures around the world. “

That response continues for almost another 1500 words. Personally I prefer the definition found in Webster’s dictionary: “a criminal act” although there are more than a hundred definitions of the word terrorist and they don’t all agree with each other.

And before you try to tell me that it is necessary to correctly label threats like Michael Bibeau in order to effectively develop counter-measures to protect ourselves, consider this.

Countries around the world do not all agree on what does or does not constitute terrorism or which groups and individuals are terrorists and they waste an inordinate amount of time debating it. That probably goes a long way towards explaining why they can’t come to an agreement on how to combat it.

The American-led air campaign against ISIL is a hodgepodge of strategies and participation by more than 60 countries; more than a few of which could defeat ISIL on their own if they treated it like a real war rather than an “anti-terrorist” campaign.

They can’t even agree on what to call the enemy.  Some call it ISIS, others ISIL and still others refer to it as IS. Some only want to conduct air strikes in Iraq but not Syria, others are willing to attack ISIL in Syria but unwilling to commit ground troops. Some are providing military equipment and supplies to the Iraqi army and the Kurds; others are reluctant to do so.

And in Ottawa, while all this is happening, our leaders argue about whether or not Michael Zehaf Bibeau was a terrorist.

It makes you proud doesn’t it?

We are starving for serious leadership in a time of increased threat but all we have are politicians who can’t put aside their petty partisan bickering beyond the post-attack photo op.

I’m a simple guy and for me the issue is simple. Those who would do us harm whether it is because of the political ideology, their religious beliefs of because they belong to a drug cartel, a violent biker gang or the mob are enemies of, and a threat to, a civilized and peaceful society. It is government’s role to provide the necessary means and funding to implement protocols and sufficient funding for our collective security rather than wasting time arguing about labels.

Call Zehaf Bibeau whatever you like. Ascribe whatever motives you want but at the end of the day, he killed one of us and tried to kill more. There is little difference in my mind behind someone like Bibeau and Maurice “Mom” Boucher, former leader of the Quebec chapter of Hell’s Angels. Neither respected our laws or our society. They both  killed for their own purposes – what those purposes may be are irrelevant. It is the fact that they are prepared to kill to gain whatever it is they think they want that makes them a threat.

Law enforcement applies the same basic investigative and intelligence activities against biker gangs and organized crime as it does against ideological terrorists, which is a fairly strong indication that when you get past the labels, the crime and the way in which is fought are pretty much the same.

The lack of common sense doesn’t end with this partisan and adolescent debate over labels.

Graham Fraser, Canada’s Commissioner for Official Languages has blasted the government for not providing security alerts in both English and French.

“When people are in a state of panic, the clarity of information becomes absolutely critical. . . I don’t want to have to get a dictionary to find out my life is in danger.”

I would suggest that getting the information out as quickly as possible in a crisis trumps waiting to have it translated in order to maintain the political niceties. Considering that all federal civil servants in Ottawa are pretty much required to be bilingual, the language of the security alert shouldn’t be an issue. In the heart of a crisis, information is critical and there is no time to wait while it is translated, reviewed and edited. That not only slows the dissemination of information but increases the potential for mistakes in messaging.

Mr. Fraser’s criticism is just one more absurd example of government-think that puts process ahead of everything else including public safety.

We are sorely lacking real leadership in this country, and indeed in the world, but we won’t get it because we are just complacent enough to choose sides and then defend our choices rather than demanding better from all who would lead.

If an attack on our seat of government isn’t enough to unite our leaders to a common course of action let alone what to call it; I would suggest we need new leaders.

If we are ever successful in getting them, I would hope that the current leadership would take twits like Graham Fraser with them as they leave.


© 2014 Maggie’s Bear

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Twitter: @maggsbear – Facebook: Maggie’s Bear  – ivmaki@sympatico.ca


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  • charlie98

    “They both killed for their own purposes – what those purposes may be are irrelevant. It is the fact that they are prepared to kill to gain whatever it is they think they want that makes them a threat”

    The real threat is that there are people who prey on vulnerable individuals who can be manipulated to do things they normally would not do. There will always be vulnerable people and as long as everyone ignores the manipulators bad things will happen.

    We know who is doing the manipulation, we know their techniques and we are paralyzed into inaction for fear of offending someone / something.

    • MaggiesBear

      You’re right and arguing over labels does nothing to change that.