Every act of terrorism is a criminal act, but not every criminal act is terrorism. That's the distinction Canadians and their government are wrestling with right now. Was the murder of a Canadian soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial last week and the subsequent assault on Parliament an attempt to use violence to achieve political ends? Or was it the work of a troubled, mentally ill drifter, lashing out in a grandiose fashion after being refused a passport?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been categorical in labelling the Ottawa attack, as well as the murder of another Canadian soldier in Quebec, as terrorism. Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair says the Ottawa attack was a "criminal act." The RCMP says both killers were motivated or at least inspired in some fashion by Islamic extremism; this seems clear in case of the Quebec attack but is less obvious in the case of the Ottawa attacker, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.
The debate – terrorism or not? – isn't particularly useful. It takes a complex issue and tries to reduce it to a label. It short-circuits an honest inquiry into questions that demand answers: Why did these men do what they did? And what can be done to reduce the likelihood of future attacks? Invoking the threat of terrorism may also lower public resistance to new security measures that wouldn't otherwise be acceptable, such as making it easier for police to detain people suspected of being sympathetic to terrorist groups or ideas. Or, as Justice Minister Peter MacKay mused publicly this week, making it a criminal offence to "glorify" terrorist groups or activities, a law adopted by the British that has been highly controversial and almost never used.
Everyone can agree that the Ottawa attack was criminal. And leaving it at that leaves the door open to deeper thought: How do we monitor people before they suddenly commit a crime? Should we monitor some people more closely? How much evidence should be required to monitor or detain? And was Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau's attack driven above all by long-standing mental health issues rather than a long-held ideology? If so, why wasn't he able to get help? How did he get his hands on a rifle? Are guns properly secured in Canada?
Canadians need to ask every imaginable question about what happened in Ottawa. A fight over labels gets in the way of an honest search for answers and solutions.