The word “terrorism” is politically loaded and emotionally charged, and this greatly compounds the difficulty of providing a precise definition. A study on political terrorism examining over 100 definitions of “terrorism” found 22 separate definitional elements (e.g. Violence, force, fear, threat, victim-target differentiation).


The word terrorism is slippery, but I think that it is important to keep this point in mind:

The concept of terrorism may be controversial as it is often used by state authorities (and individuals with access to state support) to delegitimize political or other opponents, and potentially legitimize the state’s own use of armed force against opponents (such use of force may be described as “terror” by opponents of the state).

Which is precisely what we have been hearing from some politicians since the lone gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau started shooting people in Ottawa this week.  I am calling Michael Zehaf-Bibeau  a lone gunman because that is what it seems he was.  If we are going to call him a terrorist then we should, to be fair, call Lee Harvey Oswald a terrorist, or John Wilkes Booth a terrorist.

Since the lone gunman Zehaf-Bibeau was killed the Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper has used the attack to “legitimize the state’s own use of armed force against opponents”.

“But let there be no misunderstanding: We will not be intimated — Canada will never be intimidated…. it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organisations who brutalise those in other countries with the hope of bringing that savagery to our shores.”

Steven Harper

Regardless of what IS may say after the fact it seems extremely unlikely that Zehaf-Bibeau was working for anyone but himself.  The only potential lead pointing to anything else is the photo someone took of him holding a gun with a scarf tied around the lower half of his face.  Who that someone is may turn up a wider conspiracy or might just be some dick who took a photo.

The narrative forming around Zehaf-Bibeau is of drug addiction, crime and mental illness.  His father is Libyan and Libya and the situation there has obviously played a part in his identity struggles, and probably in his relationship with Islam.  Zehaf-Bibeau’s final weeks seem to have been tied up with trying (and failing) to get his passport renewed so that he could go to Libya again.

Which means that Steven Harper would have us believe that lone gunman actions of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s will lead Canada to redouble its fight with terrorists in other countries.  A textbook example of labelling something terrorism to legitimize the state’s use of force elsewhere.  A point that leads us with wearisome predictability to New Zealand where we wait – in our heightened state of low risk – for the announcement of John Key on New Zealand’s actions in the latest front in the War on Terror.

Since Ottawa we have had a parade of nonsense on our news.  Winston Peters has opined that we need armed patrols at our parliament, and suddenly we have stories about arming the police again.  John Key tells us that the only thing to think about in that debate is the absolute need for police to have guns versus the problem you get where the police have so many guns they might fall into the wrong hands (my problem with arming the police is that arming any section of society makes that society more violent).  Then we have the constant refrain (played by Steven Harper in his speech) that we will not let terror dictate our decisions.  I am pretty sure that the very nature of the decision John Key is making has been dictated by terrorism.

It’s like we’re not hearing ourselves.  Professor Al Gillespie from Waikato University was on Breakfast.  His piece has been edited to pump the “threat to New Zealand” angle, but what he actually told us was that among the 18,000 terrorist attacks last year “the vast majority [were] not in the developed world”, and that New Zealanders were at far greater risk from domestic violence.  And so it goes.  Most crime is the poor robbing the poor while the rich make tougher laws because they feel frightened, and most terror attacks are against the populations where those terrorist groups are resident.  The mass beheading of soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Syria are terrorist attacks although they are reported as beheadings.

It doesn’t matter much to western media if whole rows of people from Syria and Iraq are beheaded, but the coverage of the beheading of solitary westerners launches a tsunami of stories.  On the ongoing war in Kobani we hear very little, on the actions of Zehaf-Bibeau a great deal.  Or whoever.  A few days before it was the so-called Ginger-Jihadist from Australia.  What can we say about these figures?  That a vanishingly small group of young men in society are lost, that they can only see the problems and meaninglessness of their culture, and are drawn to the rigidity, clarity and rhetoric of a powerful alternative?  But those people – the fascinating “traitors” from within – are not what we should be talking about.

If John Key wants to make a decision that makes sense then I hope his research team are looking closely at a few case studies.  Yemen would be a good place to start.  A decade long American campaign of drone strikes has murdered hundreds of civilians, increased terrorism in the country, destabilised the government, and promoted civil war and regional secession movements.  Bombing is not only not a solution it is part of the problem.  Understanding history might be a better place to start.  Vice News shows IS members at the Iraq-Syria border knocking down the border crossing and proclaiming the end of Sykes-Picot.  I wonder if Sykes-Picot has been mentioned once in the news in New Zealand in the last year.  Like stories about Maori grievances a large part of society rolls its eyes and tells the iwi to “get over it”, but history is the whole point.  History is why we are here, and for some people “here” is pretty bad, and they want to change it.

New Zealand could be involved now because we were involved at the start of the problem.  We first sent our soldiers to the Middle East in 1915 and therefore played our part in setting up the century long catastrophe that has been Western intervention in the Middle East.  I say “could be involved” because if we go with guns and demands we may as well not bother.  IS is a horror show of intolerance and barbarity, but I remain unconvinced the solution lies in the West adopting those same principles.


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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō