Reacting to Violence with Scapegoating

The attacker, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, after shooting a soldier standing as an honor guard at the War Memorial, dramatically ran inside the Parliament building, where he exchanged gunfire with security and was quickly shot dead.

Cue the rote responses from political leaders about people hating our democracy and the need to be hyper-vigilant against terrorism on our doorstep. Leaders from the U.S., UK, France and Australia all took the opportunity to echo these sentiments, send their best wishes to Canada, and remind their own populations that they too could be at risk from terrorists.

There has been lots of speculation about Zehaf-Bibeau’s motivations, although at this point, no one really knows for sure exactly what led him to this point in his short life. But media and political leaders have predictably exploited this uncertainty to offer their rapid-response psychological assessments.

He’s been described as “troubled” and having “mental health problems,” though no commentators have reflected on the lack of supports for people with mental health problems in Canada. We’ve been told that he had been convicted for drug possession, robbery and attempted robbery (with a pointed stick, at a McDonald’s) several years before, though what any of those things had to do with Wednesday’s attack was left to our imaginations. Even his parents’ divorce was added to the litany of issues that may have shaped his troubled behavior–which, if it is related, should set off alarm bells among lawmakers and security forces given current divorce rates.

More sinister, the political and media establishment seized on both attackers’ ties to Islam as the key explanation. Both had become “radicalized,” we’ve been told–as that verb is now being equated in Canadian political discourse with acts of supposed terrorism.

Zehaf-Bibeau was “acting strangely” at a mosque he attended in recent months, according to newspaper reports that also revealed that his father, of Libyan descent, fought with the Libyan rebels in 2011 against the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi–which would place him on the same side in that war as the Canadian military. We’re also told that Zehaf-Bibeau had plans to go abroad–to either Syria or Libya, depending on who’s doing the telling–though the government delayed issuing his passport. Martin Couture-Rouleau, the killer in the Quebec attack, apparently wanted to go to Syria.

Yet there is no evidence of any ties between either attackers and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or any other Islamist organization. In fact, in Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, one account by someone familiar with him suggests he wasn’t that devout and wanted to go to Libya to kick his drug addiction.

One thing both attackers had in common, which the media has had little to say about, is the economic instability they were suffering. They were both products of an ongoing economic crisis and the government’s single-minded devotion to austerity. Couture-Rouleau’s small business had recently failed, while Zehaf-Bibeau had been jobless and living in homeless shelters.

Despite the uncertainty around the motivations of either killer and the absence of connections to any broader political program or organization, the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been loathe to let a golden opportunity to advance its reactionary agenda go to waste. Evidence has never been a necessary condition for its policies–see, for example, its support for tar sands extraction and refining in the face of climate change science.

The violence this week will most certainly be exploited to toughen security laws, limit civil liberties and increase spending on Canada’s police and spy agencies. The Harper government was already planning to introduce legislation, criticized by civil rights advocates, to broaden the domestic and international investigatory and surveillance powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), including lowering the legal threshold for preventative detention measures against suspects–that is, to imprison people who haven’t been charged with, and may not have committed, any crime.

CSIS will also be granted greater powers to share intelligence with the rest of the so-called “five eyes” (governments of the U.S., UK, Australia and New Zealand), while the proposed legislation will enable it to maintain the anonymity of its sources and thus limit scrutiny over its investigations.

Canadian media are also reporting that the Conservatives are considering another set of laws, which would require individuals suspected of posing a threat, but not charged with any crime, to regularly check in with police, and criminalize online support for terrorism as hate speech. Harper promised the day after the Ottawa killing that this legislation will now be expedited, even though there is no evidence that it would have done anything to prevent the killings: Zehaf-Bibeau was on neither CSIS’s or Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) radar, while Couture-Rouleau was actually already under surveillance.

The architecture of the contemporary Canadian security state, the foundations of which were established after 9/11, is expanding and solidifying. There are, according to security agencies, 90 Canadians resident in Canada who are on a list of homegrown “jihadists.” Prior to the killings last week, CSIS and the RCMP were already pushing for greater financial resources to monitor them–and other future terrorist threats–more extensively. In a press conference the day after the Ottawa killing, the Commissioner of the RCMP publicly mused about simply arresting them all, even if they’ve committed no crime.

But we’d be mistaken to think that the expanded security laws are aimed simply at the supposed threat of domestic Islamic fundamentalism. CSIS, the RCMP and Public Safety Canada–modeled in part on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security–have also been closely monitoring indigenous, Idle No More and other environmental activists, and clearly see these groups as a threat to its agenda of extensive capitalist expansion through resource development.

Given that both the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party (NDP) support the expansion of the tar sands and some of the pipeline proposals for transferring the heavy oil–the NDP doesn’t support the Keystone XL, which the Liberals do, though it supports an East-West pipeline project–this is unlikely to change if either of them replace the Conservatives in the next election.

It may prove difficult, particularly in Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, to find a simple explanation for last week’s violence. The motives and factors that influenced both men were likely complex.

But another part of this story, which intersects with whatever personal crises both individuals may have been experiencing, is Canada’s increasingly aggressive international role in enforcing imperialist order in the Global South. Whether or not these two young men were influenced by political opposition to Canada’s role in the Middle East, given Canada’s increasingly belligerent role in the world, and not just in the Middle East, it will not be surprising if such incidents continue to occur. Canadian imperialism has consequences.

Predictably, the potential political consequences of Canadian foreign policy have been absent in mainstream reflections on the week’s events, lost in the impulse to reduce the scale of analysis to the quirks and delusions of individual actors and/or a religion. So while we should certainly be cautious in how we situate the actions of two troubled Canadians within the broader dynamics of global empire, these incidents do come in a broader context–as Glenn Greenwald noted last week. But just as importantly, these incidents will in turn be used by the ruling class to influence Canada’s role in that broader context in the months and, possibly, years to come.

It is worth noting that even though politicians and media are telling us that the safety of all Canadians is at stake here–and, again, the motivations shaping Zehaf-Bibeau’s and Couture-Roleau’s actions defy simple explanations–both attacks were aimed specifically at soldiers, and, in the Ottawa case, politicians. Zehaf-Bibeau left alone the dozens of civilians he passed on his way into the parliament building. Couture-Rouleau waited in a mall parking lot for two hours for the opportunity to attack soldiers, never once threatening civilians.

The military has, in fact, been one of the most visible features of Canadian foreign policy since 9/11. And the reality is that Canada’s foreign policy is devastating for some of the poorest people of the world. We shouldn’t be all that surprised if some people at home or abroad–in a context of despair, alienation and lack of hope in the possibility of a fairer world–react angrily and with rage, in individualistic and anti-social ways.

Consider that Canada has been an ardent supporter of the U.S.-led “war on terror” since 2001, participating in the initial (and illegal) invasion of Afghanistan that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Since the opening salvo of the war on terror, Canada has been complicit in torture in Afghanistan, while supporting violent and corrupt governments in both Kabul and Kandahar, where Canada led the occupation from 2005 to 2011; rained down bombs in Libya, contributing to the present instability there; increased its arms sales to the despotic but strategically important (for imperialism at least) Saudi regime; diplomatically supported and continued its arms sales to Israel as the latter invaded Gaza twice and Lebanon once; and is now participating in the new war in Iraq.

The victims of Canada’s foreign policy, from the Middle East to Latin America to Africa, understand Canada’s role in the world, even if some on the Canadian left still do not. These foreign policy positions, to be clear, are not an accident or reducible to the lunacy of an especially malevolent prime minister. Canada is a major foreign investor nation, whether measured in absolute or relative terms. Canadian capital has extensive international interests and has a stake in maintaining a particular global status quo of liberalized markets and security for capital, where poor peoples and countries remain subordinate.

Thus, the Canadian state has taken an active role in the war on terror and the trans-Atlantic security nexus led by the U.S. The attacks on soldiers and the parliament building offer the Harper government an opportunity to further its security agenda and an excuse to justify future foreign interventions in the name of defending the homeland against future terrorism–i.e. the extension of a reactionary foreign policy that sows the seeds of bitterness and resentment in the first place. Lurking in the background, too, is the possibility of a national election in the spring and the opportunity for Harper to campaign on fear and the need to combat an omnipresent terrorism.

Progressive, anti-war and anti-racist forces in Canada have our work cut out for us. While important battles have been fought and campaigns built by committed activists over the last decade-and-a-half, it remains an uphill struggle, with a government–and, I’d argue, two opposition parties to varying degrees–committed to the imperialist project of Canada and its allies, and thus, of necessity, to continued securitization at home.

This securitization both mobilizes and reinforces racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, deeply rooted in a society born of British settler colonialism. Not coincidentally deploying racist language commonly used by the colonial powers–including in the Canadian context–against the indigenous peoples they were trying to conquer, Harper warned the House of Commons the day after the shooting in Ottawa about the places “where the planet is descending into savagery.”

Islamophobia, while never far from the surface in Canada, has reared its ugly face following the violence in Ottawa, spurred on no doubt by the kind of language Harper has used. As this article was being written, at least one mosque had been the target of racist graffiti. Several Muslim candidates in Toronto’s municipal elections have reported receiving racist insults while campaigning (some of which occurred before the shooting in Ottawa). In one case, a racist leaflet targeting a school trustee candidate was distributed in her ward. And these accounts, of course, don’t measure the racist incidents faced by Muslims–or people of color perceived to be Muslim–around the country that go unreported.

The events of the past week capture so much of what is wrong in neoliberal Canada: austerity, lack of social supports for people in need, militarism and deepening racism. The Canadian ruling class and its political representatives, like its counterparts in the rest of the imperialist world, offer no solutions to these things. Instead, if unchallenged they threaten to expand them.

The solution lies in our abilities to rebuild mass movements in our workplaces, communities and schools with the capacity to fight for social justice and pose a meaningful alternative for people. This is by no means an easy task, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.

Todd Gordon is a member of Toronto New Socialists and the author of Imperialist Canada.Todd thanks Jackie Esmonde for her helpful comments on this article. It originally appeared in