Have you ever tried saying a word so often in repetition that it no longer sounds like anything? After only a few dozen iterations, it quickly loses meaning and becomes an arbitrary sequence of noises, drawing more attention to what your mouth is doing than what you’re actually saying.
The same goes with words that you rely on, whether they be in writing or speech. After writing enough essays, you can recognize that you use the phrase “in conclusion” or “what’s more” a bit too often. You likely know somebody that uses the word “literally” too often, to the point that it’s interchangeable, at least in their use, with the inherently different “figuratively”.
In both cases, these compulsions are crutches; the words and phrases are used over and over because they achieve the desired effect, or because they are easy ways to connect thoughts or to punctuate points. The term “terrorism” has become one such crutch. Given that a federal election is coming up quickly, the pending C-51 anti-terrorism bill, and due to the recent attacks in Ottawa last year, terrorism is going to be talked about more and more. While it will likely be used as a crutch to appeal to those citizens most susceptible to fear-mongering, its use may also be selective.
Not unlike “creepy” and “awesome”, terrorism has the possibility of being used improperly, to describe something that is similar, while not exactly deserving of the label. However, the recently foiled Valentine’s Day shooting plot in Halifax has somehow managed to avoid the ever-ubiquitous label.
The intended attack would have likely caused multiple deaths at the Halifax Shopping Centre on Feb. 14, but was averted, ending in the arrests of two conspirators, both of whom were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. According to CBC News, at least one of the suspects was involved in an online blogging group. Given that one of the arrested was a resident of Illinois and the other Halifax, it’s likely they corresponded online to commit the act. Commanding officer in the Nova Scotia RCMP, Brian Brennan, commented the arrested “had some beliefs and were willing to carry out violent acts against citizens”. Considering that their plan was to attack a shopping centre on the most commercially romantic holiday of the year, it wouldn’t be too far a leap to think that the attack was inspired by social differences, especially given Brennan’s description of the group as “murderous misfits”. However, both Brennan and the Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean Michel Blais were unwilling to label the planned attack as an act of terrorism, as it lacked “political” or “ethnic” motivation.
Concerning the pending anti-terrorism bill, Justice Minister Peter McKay enforced Brennan and Blais’ definition of terrorism last weekend, saying that “the attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated – therefore, not linked to terrorism”. He responded to inquiries on the earlier statement by telling reporters to look up the definition of terrorism. Unfortunately, there is no concrete and agreed definition for the term. If you were to look it up, you would find entries ranging in difference from the semantic to the fundamental. While many involve a “political” motivation, some merely require a shared belief as the motivation for acts of violence on innocent, non-militant bystanders as qualification for the term. Therefore, implying that only those of a shared ethnic or cultural belief (like a religion, or a race) instead of merely perceived social injustice (like the foiled conspirators of the Valentine’s Day attack) takes on a possible jingoistic or even racist undertone.
In the coming months, the definition of terrorism will likely gain a more official status here in Canada. Support for one party or the other, for or against the C-51 bill will be a part of that process. Given how far-reaching the effects of such a discussion will be, it’s clear that Canadians of every background, ethnically, economically and otherwise, should be a part of the process.