The 17 Ontario terrorists, are they terrorists?


Of course I am disturbed to see that some of these apparently twisted men come from my home town of Mississauga, but I'm also bothered by the continuing expansion of the term terrorism.

To my mind, terrorism has always involved attacking ordinary innocents for the purpose of sewing terror to some polictical end. Attacking military targets, such as the Pentagon or the USS Cole, or Marine bases is not terrorism (though you can argue that the victims on the plane used in that attack on the Pentagon qualify it as terrorist, but sadly from their perspective, they more correctly fit the definition of what we euphamistically call "collateral damage.")

Those arrested in Ontario, it was revealed, planned to attack Parliament and take the Prime Minister and others there hostage, demanding they pull troops from Afghanistan. While I make no excuse for their plans or actions, I can't see attacking the very people who ordered the troops in as terrorism. (Though holding them hostage is.) You could call it treason (because many were Canadians or naturalized Canadians and had in the latter case taken an oath not to do this which they would have betrayed.) You could call it guerilla warfare if you accept them as legitimate guerrilla soldiers of that nation. You could call it insurrection. You could just call it conspiracy towards kidnapping and attempted murder. All of these crimes can offer Canada's maximum penalty. (Which, by the way, is life in prison.)

But if this is terrorism, what isn't? As noted, we've seen attacks such as that on the Cole, or Marine bases or the Pentagon called terrorist. Is the only thing that's not terrorist sending in a ship with a flag on it full of uniformed fighters? Or lobbing a missile at a tall building with the major radio transmission towers on it, which is the first thing the U.S. does in its wars?

I should note that the definition of terrorism in the law they are charged under does not distinguish civilian from military targets. It just requires things like attacks causing serious bodily harm or death for politicial, religious or ideological purposes.

Update based on comments: As noted above kidnapping is not considered a valid tool of war. The rules of war require all captured enemy to be treated as POWs. As such, the hostage-taking part of the plan is legitimately classified as terrorist. While the leaders, including the civilian leaders at the top who issue orders to troops in my opinion count as valid military enemies in war, the role of assassination in war has always been controversial. It is however, perhaps the archetypical move of an insurrection.

Again, if guilty, these men are evil and deserve the strongest punishment whether attacking parliament is terrorist or not. What's important about this debate is that society is using the word terrorism to redefine our laws, and make laws that punish it more, and allow law enforcement infringements of civil rights in ways that would not be allowed against non-terrorist criminals. So we must make particular care in defining the term. In particular, I hope we can define the term in a way that our own actions, and past wartime actions we approve of, would not even resemble what we define as terrorism. Civilized governments and armies should never deliberately target innocents, which is why that's the right place to draw the line. They do, however, engage in guerilla actions, are born of insurrections, and send spies and sabateurs and assassins. They do blow up buildings with military value whether civilians in or nearby will be killed in the process. If we include such actions as terrorist, we should deplore them just as much when nations do them.


Most people who work in the parliament buildings did not order the troops to Afghan. Only 300 politicians did. That's all!

But the rules of war have always considered command-and-control centers to be a legitimate target of war, even though there's only one commander-in-chief.

The "good guys" kill civilians all the time -- far too often in fact -- who are incidentally present at 'legitimate' targets of war, such as Hiroshima, Berlin, Dresden, Baghdad, you name it. The PM, the DND are valid targets of war and the people who work with them during a period of war are expected to be aware of that risk. Today we judge it to be rather small of course.

Again, I am not trying to justify or approve of these guys wanting to attack Parliament. I'm mainly concerned that the definition of terrorism is being broadened and cheapened when I think it should be limited to deliberate attacks on innocents. The idea is that it's supposed to be more heinous than traditional acts of war, that it's a line that civil societies don't cross over. Our nations, in wars, have routinely had agents (including natives who decided to work for us) who would act behind enemy lines to engage in geurilla attacks on military targets such as trains, factories, bases and commanders.

I'll be writing elsewhere on what I think engenders terrorism, but here I just want to say that if we define terrorism to mean anything that modern, unequal enemies do, it's become a useless term, and one that will be used against us.

Brad, this last statement qualifies you as a terrorist sympathizer. This makes you an asshole. It's people like you that make this type of terrorism possible. You should be kicked out of Canada or the U.S. forever and forced to live in that world. I'm so sick and tired of you idealistic sympathizers. Go F- yourself.

Usually the difference between "terrorists" and the "good guys" are simple things such as a regular command structure, a senior officer that can effect orders, and uniforms or "regular soldiers," and a supporting nation.

Take any of these things out of the picture (much like the fire triange) and you move from being an official army to terrorists. Many of the actions by our Special Forces could be interpreted as terrorist actions, except for the fact that they have all the proper credentials to make them "regulars" including support by a government that can be negotiated with.

The key point here is how can one negotiate with terrorists if they refuse to make themselves public until some damage has been done? And then only "negotiate" with terror videos, or some other one way only means.

The whole point of the word "terrorist", I believe, is to categorize a particularly heinous kind of violent partisanship. So I don't think defining it based on whether you are in touch with your General makes sense as a line, why is it more heinous?

That's important because we seem to want to have a stronger reaction to terrorism, in the law, and in our own physical responses to it.

To me, what's always been so nasty about it is that innocents are targetted, rather than the direct military or governmental enemy. They target the innocents to sew terror and influence the government (particularly when the government is strongly influenced by the people as in a democracy.)

"Legitimate" states kill innocents all the time, sadly, but at least they are, or claim to be, going after the military targets.

I've always felt the word terrorism was to refer to crossing that line. When your targets become innocents, indeed when they deliberately become innocents because of how much more shocking and terrifying that is.

Now in wartime, geurilla forces, saboteurs, spies, assassins and even local traitors and others have routinely worked behind enemy lines, out of uniform to perform operations against targets. Doing these things has not classified you as a terrorist. (They all tend to be punishable by death, and don't qualify to be a prisoner of war though.)

What I ask is, if these guys are terrorists for trying to blow up our government HQ, why aren't we in the west terrorists when we blow up other government HQs? That's why I say these men, if the allegations are true, are traitors or planned murderers, rather than terrorists.

I suspect that quite a lot of people would call the IRA and ETA terrorists yet they have a well defined command structure. I think it's probably just best to avoid all use of words that end in -ist or -ism and say clearly what you mean instead of attempting to use culturally relative shorthand.

Semantics aside, the planned assault on Parliament Hill was not considered as an Act of War (which would bring about the alternate terminology you suggest) but as a simple terrorist attack on the Canadian people. Do you mean to suggest that the FLQ did not commit acts of terrorism? That they were (are) a legitimate political force?

Still, current reports suggest that plan was abandoned and the current plan was to set off one or more bombs in downtown Toronto, a civilian target and a terrorist attack by any reasonable definition.

Did a number of terrorist acts, bombings, etc. There's an argument that the killing of Laporte is an act of insurrection rather than terrorism, though kidnapping (as I will clarify above) can be a terrorist act and as such even deputy Premier Laporte could count as terrorist.

(Though there does seem to be some irony to that set of definitions, that we would treat kidnapping as worse than assassination. I suspect it's because you're never going to get what you want for your cause by kidnapping, and the subsequent murder if you don't get it is so unlike military action. Also because the military norm if you capture/kidnap a high-value leader is to take them back to your territory as a P.O.W. and treat them as such, in fact that's all you are allowed to do with captured enemy.)

Of course there is also valid debate about whether assassination is a valid tool of war. It's certainly a classic tool of insurrection, however, probably moreso than just about anything.

There are some articles of the Geneva convention that explicitly bar indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population. One definition of terrorism is a violation of those articles. This is probably roughly the definition Brad has in mind.

A tighter definition is etymological: it's not terrorism unless you're trying to terrify people. By this definition, a man who blows up a city because he's trying to frighten other cities is a terrorist, but a man who blows up a city because he wants the people in the city to die, or one who just likes watching mushroom clouds, is not a terrorist.

We often see statements like "terrorists blow up Cole" which are technically true though a little misleading. The people who blew up the Cole probably were terrorists, in the sense that they carried out terrorist actions at other times, even if the attack on the Cole wasn't terrorism.

These definitions probably aren't capturing what we really care about. Perhaps the key issue here is that we don't care whether they are terrorists. We care that they are killing innocent people and want to establish repressive obscurantist governments, and this is where our terminology should focus.

I know terrorism is real but I think people highly overreact to it in Canada and are affected by the U.S. media. Is terrorism really a big threat in Canada? Dying in a plane or car accident or drowning has much much higher chances than of dying in an attack.

Add new comment