In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Canada, like her neighbour to the south, created a slew of new laws specific to the detention of people as related to terrorist activities. These laws gave the government the power to detain people not just for committing terrorist acts, but also for their potential to commit said acts.
While that's all very well and good and maybe even necessary, the difficulty lies in defining exactly what a terrorist act is. Part of Canada's law defining a terrorist act was struck down as being unconstitutional the other day by Superior Court judge on the grounds that it impinged upon the right to freedom of religion.
In his ruling he said that defining terrorist activities as criminal acts motivated by religion is a serious infringement on religious freedom. While some are dismissing this action as not really being that big a deal, because it doesn't add anything to the already nebulous definition of what actually is a terrorist act, the fact of the matter is that it does eliminate the possibility that anybody is going to be picked up as a potential terrorist based on their religion.
It seems that Canada is using a process of elimination in an attempt to define what exactly constitutes terrorism and an act of terror. As it stands now, our attempts are in line with pretty much the rest of world and the United Nations. But the problem is nobody has actually defined what exactly terrorism is. U.N. Resolution 1566 might say things like attacks on civilians to coerce a government into doing or not doing something are acts of terrorism, but there is no definitive definition as to what makes a person a terrorist.
The problem is there is a certain amount of moral ambiguity about some of the ways we would define terrorism. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter is one of the most often repeated paradoxes of the twentieth century when people are talking about geo-political realities. If we have to start with that as an accepted reality are we ever going to be able to come up with a definitive definition of terrorism?
Was the U. N. on the right track in trying to define it by the activities carried out by a group in attempting to achieve it's goals, or is their an actual philosophical difference between those who are freedom fighters and those who are terrorists? Just because we support their cause, the Africa National Congress and Nelson Mandela for instance were declared a terrorist organization by the government of South Africa but they had worldwide support. Does that make them right?
Sentiment is a dangerous thing and can cause a person to lose track of the reality of who or what it is they are condoning. Back in 1980 there was a group Irish Republic Army prisoners who went on a hunger strike because they wanted to be political prisoners and not treated like criminals. There was a lot of popular support for them both at home in Ireland and abroad in North America (where it really counted of course because the happy Irishman Reagan was president of the United States). But a few years later the pendulum swung against them when they began their bombing campaign again and blew up a car bomb in a public square killing numerous people for apparently no other reason than to show that they could still get away with it whenever and however they wanted.
The I.R.A. and other groups like them claimed to have fought for freedom but they always seemed more than willing to deny others their freedom when it suited their needs. Denying others the ability to move about at will because you might be waiting to blow them up for no other reason except that they are a different religion then you don't sound like fighting for freedom to me.
It sounds more like using innocents to blackmail governments into doing what you want, or to sap the morale of the public so much they will pressure their government into caving. This was much the same tactic used in World War Two by both sides to justify their bombing of civilian targets; destroying the morale of a nation's citizens in the hopes of speeding up the war's conclusion.
If that isn't an example of using the citizens of a country to coerce its government into making a decision, I don’t know what is. But at the time most political leaders and public fully endorsed the policy. In fact bombing raids are still carried out where we know that civilians could be at risk, but we consider that acceptable because we are not directly targeting them.
The real problem with trying to define terrorism by its actions, motivations, or the composition of the group doing the deed, is the fact once we start looking too close the case can be made for almost any act of violence or warfare against another people be called terrorism. If one country chooses to attack another country, no matter how noble or just their actions might seem they are still going to be committing acts of violent aggression against another group of human beings.
I'm not saying that I'm naïve enough to believe that there are not times when the only course of action is to take up arms, but I don't believe that we can differentiate between acts of violence by labelling them with words that denote one as being better than another. Blowing up a civilian aircraft is despicable and cowardly and is the action of people who have no regard for human life.
But why is it considered more of an affront then mobilizing thousands of people and pieces of equipment with the intent of taking life and destroying property? Just because one lays claim to the reigns of power in a country does that give you some sort of exemption from being responsible for the deaths of people? We say that terrorism are acts of violence which have no military objective, whose only purpose is to kill and spread fear as if somehow having a military objective makes killing acceptable.
Perhaps the reason we struggle to define, or differentiate between terrorism and other forms of violence is that too many of the justifications used by groups we refer to as terrorist sound far too similar to the ones utilized by everybody else. How can we obtain moral high ground if we let terrorists have the same reasons we have for utilizing violence as a means of problem resolution?
When the judge in Ontario struck down the law which would allow someone to be defined as a terrorist if he committed a crime motivated by his religious convictions he was only bringing Canada into line with rest of the world. We still have laws on the books that will allow us to lay charges against individuals as terrorists, but those same charges could have been laid without any special provision made to the criminal code of Canada.
In fact, by giving these acts the appellant terrorist aren't you also giving them what they want by making them out to be some sort of hero instead of being a common criminal? Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to sentencing a person for an act or an attempted act of violence and could put a person away for a good long time even without calling them a terrorist.
Whether I like it or not is irrelevant, but our society has two types of violence, authorized and un-authorized, there's no point in beating about the bush and trying to qualify that any further. We are never going to be able to come up with definitions of terrorism that will not in some ways paint us with same brush. It doesn't matter to the person who is killed whether it was a terrorist bullet that took their life or that of a soldier: dead is dead and there's nothing you can do about it after the fact.