Canada’s View on Terrorism

Since the Boston Marathon bombing, and the plot to derail a VIA Rail passenger train in Toronto, terrorism has once more moved to the forefront of many Canadian and American minds.

canada-terrorismCanada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to these events by warning against “committing sociology” in examining terrorist activity. While Harper’s comments were aimed directly at Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, his message reached the ears of Canadian citizens, and, for some, it was a message of cynicism.

Harper was responding to an earlier comment made by Trudeau who called for an examination of the motivations of terrorists and their feelings of exclusion and alienation from society. This message mirrored US President Barack Obama’s statement after the attacks: “These things are serious,” said Harper, referring to acts of terrorism, as he urged listeners to avoid intellectual examination of terrorism’s causes, and rather, focus on finding and stopping terrorists.

Tory MP Pierre Poilievre also made a statement of blunt anti-intellectualism saying, “the root causes of terrorism ‘are terrorists.” Period. According to Harper, asking the “why” question excuses, rationalizes and even endorses acts of terror.

Why Such Extremism?

Why does Harper seem to hold such a narrow view of this issue? Why does he see no value in sociological analysis? Sociologist Anna-Liisa Aunio commented on this perplexing question, noting that even mainstream popular culture is capable of asking sociological and philosophical questions surrounding violence. Why then, does the current Conservative government scoff at and discredit this practice?

This critique of sociological questioning is reflective of a continuing polarization between the far right and the far left. Perhaps not as clearly seen in Canada until recently, this same intellectual blockade has persisted in the US for some time, particularly surrounding the gun debate, the attack on women’s rights, and the ongoing environmental discussion.

This divide is more than a differing of opinions between Conservatives and Liberals. There is a growing divide between these two camps, as each side appears to the other as more and more extreme in their views. This anti-intellectualism on the part of the right often leads to a standstill, something quite clearly shown in the US political system. A system made sluggish and ineffective by a lack of communication, cooperation, and compromise.

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The Long Game

Can there not lie a middle ground between these two stances? Surely, terrorist activities should be stopped, and the loss of life halted, but there should also be space for discussions of why these events occur, and why men and women choose to take part in such activities.

What social triggers cause an individual to head down this path, what social, political, economic, psychological factors lead to a person taking innocent lives, and often their own life, in the process? What goals do they feel they are fulfilling? What lead them to participate in these events in such a damaging and permanent way? Sociology must not be a dirty word.

This “sociology” Harper warns against, and those who commit it, are perhaps playing the long game. Rather than focusing on how to foil terror plots as they arise, these sociologists look to what social, political, religious forces may have caused or fueled the extreme states of anger seen in many terrorists.

For Aunio committing sociology “doesn’t mean that we excuse violence – it doesn’t even mean that we can necessarily explain it. It does mean that asking the ‘why’ question is necessary, if only to understand the world a bit better.” The left-leaning, intellectual, sociologists do not claim to be on the path to ‘solving’ terrorism.

Not the “who,” “where,” “how” question, nor the “why” question, can exist effectively in isolation. These differing methodologies must work in tandem, in a joint effort to understand, and hopefully quell, terrorism. These sociological questions must not be mocked, but pursued. To ignore certain avenues of questioning, other views, other means of analysis, is to look at a very narrow slice of the intellectual pie.

Emma Sturgeon holds a Master’s in Religion and Modernity from Queen’s University, Kingston. She is a researcher, writer, and political analyst living in Toronto Canada. Read other articles by Emma.