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the persistence of perversions

you didn't have to be canadian this week to know the biggest news story in the country. friends from the u.s. and the u.k. [as well as some from further away] expressed their shock and condolences when they heard that a shooter, a canadian man who converted in adulthood to islam, had murdered a young soldier in front of a war memorial in our capital city of ottawa. fewer of them realised that this was actually the second such incident in three days. another young man, also a late convert to islam who expressed anger at the canadian government's support for u.s. bombing campaigns in the middle east, targeting islamic state fighters. it's been a tough week here in a country that isn't exactly used to being the target of such vitriol.

it didn't take long to identify the assailants in either case as "self-radicalised" supporters if the radical islamic state group. the first, martin couture-rouleau, who ran down two soldiers, killing one, in st-jean-sur-richelieu, was already being watched by the government [and had had his passport revoked]. the second, michael zehaf-bibeau, had not advertised his radical views to the same extent, but it did not take long after his shooting rampage for evidence to emerge that he too had drunk the islamic state kool aid. already, at least one mosque has been defaced and the canadian prime minister is promising to allocate more funds and resources to the police and military in order to fight terrorism at home. the battle is on and it looks like it could become ugly. too bad it won't help solve the problem.

first of all, it ignores the fact that the rcmp and csis [the canadian security intelligence service, our version of mi6 or the c.i.a.] actually have a pretty good record when it comes to thwarting terrorist activity. in 2006, they broke up a fairly well-organised terrorist cell inspired by al-qaeda and arrested eighteen people before the group had a chance to act on any of their plans. in 2010, two ontario men were arrested and charged with facilitating terrorist activity. one was found guilty earlier this year, while the other opted to plead guilty to avoid a life sentence.] in 2013, they arrested two people who had planned to bomb a popular train route, again, before the plan could be executed. clearly, they underestimated the danger posed by two individuals this week, but this does not mean that they were incapable of responding; it means that they need to update their methods of tracking potential terror suspects to account for the increasing presence of "lone wolves" who believe they will die as religious heroes. in fact, unless they are able to adjust to new realities, i'm not convinced that throwing money at the problem will make much difference at all.

where the government is going wrong is by focusing their efforts on radical islam. while the two men who killed soldiers this week might have professed that their actions were inspired by their religion, it doesn't seem like this was their basic problem. martin couture rouleau was angry and depressed, according to one of his neigbours [linked article is in french], particularly over the loss of his business. other neighbours noted that this lead to a complete change in his personality, as if he'd become a different person. whereas some might have sought psychiatric help, couture-rouleau sought solace in a bastardized form of islam, something that allowed him to direct the anger that he felt and to act out the role of the martyr he already believed himself to be.

bibeau's case is even worse. he had struggled for years with mental illness and addiction. at one point, he claimed to have committed an armed robbery that never happened and later on tried to hold up a mcdonald's restaurant with a stick then waited for the police to arrive. he was addicted to crack and desperate to go to jail, where he felt that he had a chance to break his habit. sadder still, at the time, his faith was inspiring him to get clean and improve himself. however, as he got more frustrated with his peripatetic life, he was able to funnel his anger through his religion.

it seems clear that both of these men were suffering from mental illness and that both felt lost and powerless. it's not uncommon for people in such circumstances to turn to religion or any support system. unfortunately, the networks that they often find don't offer anything like the help they need, but rather allow them to displace blame for their situation and embrace ideologies that validate their feelings of rage, particularly against power structures.

there is no doubt that the islamic state group has reached out to muslims worldwide, encouraging them to act against western governments on their own territory while i.s. fights the war for the homeland. but without a receptive audience, those messages would be meaningless. we would be far better off addressing the domestic audience if we want to prevent more terrorist acts at home. after all, it's not like we've never seen this type of thing before.

in the 1990s, the public was suddenly confronted with domestic terrorism of a different sort when right wing "patriot" timothy mcveigh blew up the alfred p. murrah federal building in oklahoma. an decorated soldier, mcveigh had found life outside the military unexpectedly tough, moving from place to place and from one job to another, while growing increasingly hostile toward the government. [mcveigh had attempted to enter special forces training prior to leaving the military, but was rejected on the basis of his psychological exam.] he reportedly claimed that the government had inserted a microchip in him to track his movements and struggled with gambling addiction before finding himself welcome in the arms of a militia movement who shared his anti-government sentiments.

the oklahoma city bombing was actually one in a series of incidents involving such anti-government groups: in 1992, randy weaver and his family had a standoff with federal authorities that ended in three deaths; less than a year later, the branch davidian compound in waco texas was raided after a standoff of nearly two months with many of the same federal agencies [most notably the department of alcohol, tobacco and firearms, whose role in enforcing gun laws has often brought them into conflict with survivalist factions] and seventy-six members of the group died in a fire.

the primary motivation of these militias was political and not religious [although many of them identified with radical forms of christianity], but the similarities between them and islamic state are nonetheless compelling: both groups target governments as a way of stripping potential victims of their humanity; both reassure converts that they have struggled because the powers that be have stacked the odds against them and mean them harm; both espouse violence, which has a terrible appeal to people who feel powerless in their own lives, as it allows them to substitute their impotent passivity with action; and of course, they provide the sense of being part of something larger, something greater than oneself and the chance to be a hero.

by insisting that we clamp down solely on terrorist activity- either from islamic state or the militia movement- we are addressing the symptom but not the cause. the reason that the recruitment tactics have been successful is because there is such a pool of angry, frustrated people who feel like their lives are blighted and that they can do nothing to change this by acting "within the system". people who cannot find ways to work their way out of poverty, who cannot get help for mental illness and addiction, people who have served their country and returned only to feel betrayed by governments who had been happy to use them, young people who can see few prospects for their futures, these are all soft targets for extremists. as long as we continue asking "how can we stop these groups from recruiting?" instead of "why are so many people eager to join groups like this?" we will forever be playing what amounts to an extremely dangerous game of whack-a-mole, always focused on eradicating the radical flavour of the month.

i don't oppose spending more money to target terrorist groups in canada, as long as i'm reasonably convinced it would do some good. but if we're going to facilitate longer term change, our government needs to stop implementing policies that target the poor by reducing services available to them; they need to expand funding for mental health services and work with the provinces to ensure that there is minimal cost associated with using them; they need to create greater access to drug treatment centres and update drug laws so that addicts are treated for health problems and not branded as criminals; they need to abandon the idea that we are all better off taking a pittance in tax credits and fending for ourselves than we are acting as a civil society and considering that the raising the living standard of the entire group helps us all individually. in short, the government needs to do the opposite of what it has been doing on almost every front.

i see no evidence that this will happen. sadly, i suspect that if i'm still around and writing this blog in twenty years, i'll be able to pull this post and update it with information on whatever group has arisen to twist religion, national pride or something new and prey on the angry and disenfranchised. maybe by then, we'll have figured it out.

the image at the top of this post shows the burning of the waco compound of the branch davidians in april 1993. i'm not certain of the original source, but i found it in this article. the rest of the site is absolutely worth a look for those interested in politics, culture, cooking, humour and, well, a lot of the topics you find here on more like space.

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