Sunday, November 15, 2015

Defining Terrorism

Terrorism is a major concern in modern life.  Canada has been called a “peaceable kingdom” but there has been plenty of politically motivated violence in Canada’s past.     Ignoring the 1837 and Red River Rebellions,  D'Arcy McGee and Pierre Laporte died in what can only be described as terrorist violence. Fenian assaults through the 1860s and 1870s mark the birth of Canada.  I clearly remember FLQ bombings in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently we have seen what appears to be religiously motivated violence in Ottawa. 

All that said, the definition of terrorism is not straightforward.

It is a commonplace that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.  Certainly, political violence is seen differently depending on the politics of the observer.  Sometimes a terrorist attack is excused on the basis that it was “necessary”.   Such an excuse will not wash, at least not under Canadian criminal law.

The Canadian Criminal Code definition of terrorism is straightforward and does not distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorism.  The Criminal Code definition of terrorism is based largely on intention – if you do something that is otherwise criminal for a “political, religious, or ideological purpose” you are likely committing a terrorist act.  And that is true even if the “political, religious, or ideological purpose” is otherwise a “good” one. (To be clear, I think there is never a good reason to commit a terrorist act).

The definition of “terrorist activity” in the Criminal Code has two parts.

The first part defines terrorism to include a series of offences under international agreements; so agreements to combat hijacking from the 1970s are used to define hijacking as terrorist activity.

The second, more general part of the definition, states that a “terrorist activity” is an act or omission undertaken “in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose, objective or cause” that is intended to intimidate the public or compel a person, government or organization to do or refrain from doing any act, if the act or omission intentionally causes a specified serious harm. Specified harms include causing death or serious bodily harm, endangering life, causing a serious risk to health or safety, causing substantial property damage and, in certain circumstances, causing serious interference or disruption of an essential service, facility or system, whether public or private.
Actions falling within the broader definition of terrorism would almost certainly already be criminal activity.  To commit a terrorist act you have to do intentionally something that causes significant injury to people or property. 

An example could be blowing up a building, even in the middle of the night when no one would be expected to be around. 

But blowing up a building without more is not terrorism – you need the additional intention to do so “to intimidate the public or compel a person, government or organization to do or refrain from doing any act”.  If you blow up a bank to convince the bank to stop mortgage funding for, say, an evangelical group then you have committed a terrorist act.  If you blow up a bank so as to get into the vault and steal the money inside you have committed a crime but not terrorism.

It is not a defence to say the “political, religious, or ideological purpose” behind your actions was laudable.  If you blow up property in Canada owned by a tyrannical government that oppresses its people you are just as guilty of terrorism as if you blow up a temple because you want to scare the congregants into leaving Canada.

The bottom line is that criminal violence is never legally acceptable; protest and political action is fine but violence is not.

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