Terrorist or murderer? Distinction important

On the day the nation mourned Nathan Cirillo in Hamilton — my hometown, a rock of dignity and duty, where the collar is proudly worn blue and no one messes with our national symbols — it’s understandable that we wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to characterize his killer.

On the day the nation mourned Nathan Cirillo in Hamilton — my hometown, a rock of dignity and duty, where the collar is proudly worn blue and no one messes with our national symbols — it’s understandable that we wouldn’t spend a lot of time trying to characterize his killer.

It somehow felt disrespectful to analyze the shooter’s actions as we watched five-year-old Marcus Cirillo trail his father’s casket down York Boulevard.

But how this craven killer is ultimately labelled will have an impact on Canadians far beyond last week’s twin killings of soldiers.

The man who killed the corporal appears to have been many things — a loser, a coward, mentally unstable, a man whose own mother disowned him — but to call him a terrorist somehow confers on him an outsized stature.

Why is this man — I’ll not sully Cirillo’s memory by naming him on this day — a terrorist, but the man who killed three Moncton RCMP officers is not?

The Ottawa assailant, we are told, had travelled the path of religious extremism and in a video had reportedly espoused religious beliefs, blamed his actions on Canadian foreign policy, and had made a specific threat to the military.

Under our Criminal Code, which defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause’’ with the intention of intimidating the public “with regard to its security,” he would appear to slot in nicely.

The Moncton shooter, who clearly terrorized that city, gunned down cops because they were cops, is a paranoiac who said he wanted to foment rebellion against an oppressive, corrupt government. But he made no specific threat against that government and didn’t praise Allah. He was, as RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said this week, radicalized to a different political ideology.

It appears in this national outpouring of grief and patriotism we don’t want to deal with the question of mental illness, and it is instructive how quickly and repeatedly Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Paulson have labelled this terror.

But if we were to characterize him and the man who killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent as mentally ill murderers, a government would not have licence to sharpen its rhetoric and move intrusively into the realm of civil liberties.

This is not to suggest the government wants to purposely exploit Canadian anger, but Harper set the tone the night of the shooting.

“In the days to come, we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had,’’ he said. “Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.’’

In contrast, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair spoke of an act of “hatred and brutality, a cowardly act designed to strike at the heart of our democracy.’’

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau referred to “brutal and heartless acts of violence” and called the shooter a “criminal.’’

But when it comes to crafting legislation going forward, terror and criminality are a world apart.

Paulson said the more elaborate the plot, the easier it is to disrupt and he spoke of the challenge in ferreting out the lone wolves. He spoke of building community trust to help citizens alert police to those who have undergone suspicious character changes.

But he wasn’t putting much stock in the mental illness argument.

“I’m not a psychiatrist, and I understand mental illness and I understand the ravages it can have on families and people. But when it comes to some of the purposeful, deliberate, considered, premeditated actions that flow into some of the things we’ve seen recently … I am not persuaded at all that mental illness is driving these things.’’

Instead, said Paulson, it is “a distorted world view of what’s happening around these individuals.’’

On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he had no doubt last Wednesday’s attack was terrorism. Blaney has spoken about our “under-reaction’’ to terror.

But resolve means forging ahead without radical change. Better security on the Hill, yes. Laws that crack down on freedom of speech, well, jihadists would love that.

In the dignity it afforded Cirillo on Tuesday, Hamilton did itself proud. The nation’s response has made us all proud.

But there is anger out there and anger cannot forge a response.

We must remember Nathan Cirillo stood on guard for the memory of those who fought for our freedoms and those freedoms must be protected as we respond to this indignity.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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