As terrorism has resurfaced in North America over the past two weeks, we in Canada have begun to reflect on the overarching narratives which led individuals to commit such acts. We have heard some of the knee-jerk responses before that, if we understood the social failures, then perhaps we could have prevented the tragedy from occurring.
But we cannot trivialise the actions of these men as a product of an uncaring society as though they were the real victims. By all accounts, the alleged perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing lived typical North American lives. In Boston, the eldest brother was married with a child, while the youngest studied full-time and partied with his classmates following the bombings. In Canada, one suspect of the Via Rail plot was a PhD student, while the other’s family had been given refuge.
This introspective borderline narcissistic self blame is totally inappropriate. Are our lives so empty and vacuous that we feel a need to relate to these homicidal actions by blaming ourselves for what happened? The questions surrounding root causes assumes that we could have intervened, which distances responsibility away from the individual and forces society to bear an unjustified burden.
This is a futile exercise. It is not digging deep to the moral complexity of alienation and the realities of globalization which are mainstay justifications of radical Islamic terror, rather it is an attempt to avoid the issue, to side step and ignore truth. Surely each of us could look to our past to provide examples of ways in which we have been alienated, disenfranchised, or disempowered in a global society, but the reality is that the vast majority of us would not resort to, or even consider, violent action to offset a perceived cosmic imbalance.
Can we even make broad sweeping statements which capture the motivation of terrorism, when it is only a small group of people committing these crimes? Fundamentally, this sort of approach avoids placing responsibility of an action on an individual and attempts to democratize violence by blaming society, as though we were the ones who hid pressure cookers in backpacks and placed them at the feet of innocent victims, patiently waiting for them to explode.
More poignantly, while serving in Afghanistan, I was routinely the target for bullets, mortars, and rockets, improvised explosive devices were hidden on the roads and buried in the ground to blow me up, my men were injured, and some were killed. I worked and lived in a society which at times was disengaged from our activities and which contained hostile elements that wanted me dead. Despite this very real alienation, our use of force was not an act of passion or ideology, we did not target large gatherings of people, nor did we kill indiscriminately. In fact, we practised courageous restraint and there were times when we did not fire on compounds, farmhouses, or grape huts because we could not confirm if there were innocents inside.
The world is not black and white, but there are actions which are so clearly examples of hatred and evil that we should have the courage to call something out. Bombings like Boston or the more recent plot here in Canada, or like those that took place across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland at the height of the Provisional IRA’s campaign, and like those that continue to take place in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not the actions of disempowered youths, but rather of individuals who are making conscious decisions to hurt, maim, and kill. Maybe a sensibility was somehow manipulated and corrupted but it was the individual who carried out the action.
I would expect that Canadians and our leaders in particular, would see the individuals who were involved with these clandestine schemes. Now is not the time to defend those who perpetrated violence, but rather a time to empathize with those who are the true victims of terrorist violence.
David Mack, born and raised in Canada, was a captain in the British Army and served in the Black Watch in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.