a, Opinion

Commentary: The portrait of a terrorist

The portrait of a terrorist is often painted by the media as such: A radical jihadist with a calculating and deliberate plan to bring down the West.This is the narrative both American and Canadian media and governments try to sell to the masses. Indeed, this ‘terrorist’ in media narratives is never racially ‘white.’

After ‘western’ people commit a tragic and senseless act of violence, the public immediately examines their past: Were they bullied at school? Marginalized by their peers? Did they have a history of mental illness? Should we have seen the signs and given them help?

But the idea of ‘terrorism’ is never addressed. Minorities are not given the same benefit of the doubt.

In particular, when a person of Middle Eastern descent commits a devastating crime, he or she is often defaulted as a  ‘terrorist.’

In the aftermath of the recent tragic Ottawa shooting, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that a terrorist, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the soldier who was standing guard at the National War Memorial. Harper also linked Zehaf-Bibeau’s acts to Martin Couture-Rouleau’s “ISIL-inspired” attack, which occurred only two days earlier.

It is unusual that people do not categorize other mass murderers as terrorists when they use
another ideological framework to justify their actions.

This was before any concrete evidence of Zehaf-Bibeau’s connection to ISIL was raised, despite him not being one of the 90 ‘high-risk’ individuals being investigated by the RCMP.

American news outlets have been quick to praise the dignified and calm Canadian news coverage of the attack. While Canadian news sources have been less sensationalist than their American counterparts, they were still not immune to hastily describing Zehaf-Bibeau as a convert to Islam. In the coverage, his religion quickly became his defining characteristic.

His mental illness, alienation, and other psychological disturbances soon came into light, other possible causes of his actions.

Some say that Islam can be used as a justification for acts of terror. However, it is unusual that people do not categorize other mass murderers as terrorists  when they use another ideological framework to justify their actions. After all, the definition of terrorist activity in the Criminal Code is simply an act undertaken for a political, religious, or ideological purpose that is intended to intimidate.

Earlier this year, Elliot Rodger killed seven people, including himself, on a shooting spree near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara. Soon after, the police discovered a YouTube video that served as his manifesto in which he declared he would “destroy” all the females who were “incapable of seeing the value in [him].” Rodger’s sense of sexual entitlement faced with the rejections he experienced created an ideology that he could use to justify killing so many people.

Why was Rodger not considered a terrorist? Do we slot Zehaf-Bibeau into the role of the terrorist simply because of his conversion to Islam? And as a so-called terrorist, do we discredit mental illness as a factor, just like we have done to other Islamists who were not given the same benefit of the doubt as their white non-Islamic counterparts?

There seems to be a double standard here: If you are Muslim, you are a terrorist; if you are a white non-Muslim, you are mentally ill. This binary is assumptive, judgemental, and ultimately harmful.

If we want to have a better conversation on mass shootings, we first need to move away from this narrative.

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