How Do We Talk About the Edmonton Terrorist Attack?

A police officer is stabbed and four people are injured when a man drives a U-Haul into a crowd of pedestrians in Edmonton.  The suspect is identified as 30-year-old Abdulahi Sharif.  An ISIS flag is found in the vehicle.

Edmonton’s mayor, Don Iveson, Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau issue statements condemning the attack and asking the public to remain calm while the police continue their investigation.

Right on cue Twitter lights up with comments blaming the attack on the federal, provincial, and/or municipal government and calling on the government to get rid of all Muslims and ban Islam.  Ann Coulter weighs in and one bright light tells the terrorist to contact Justin Trudeau to claim his $10 million windfall.

The urge to respond to such xenophobic rhetoric “in kind” is overwhelming but gets us nowhere.  If ever there was a need for public discourse in a civil society it’s now.

Public discourse  

How do we increase public discourse?

Political philosopher Michael Sandel has some excellent suggestions.*

Step away from distracting provocations:  Some politicians (eg Donald Trump) have a “dark genius” for distracting their followers from their failures with headline grabbing provocations;  we need to recognize these distractions as meaningless and not be dragged down the rabbit hole.

Alberta has its own share of headline grabbing “commie scare” politicians who peddle a picture of a broken Alberta that only they can fix.  It makes for a rousing stump speech but is nothing more than a distraction from the fact such politicians have no real policies other than taking a combative stance vis-à-vis the federal government, other provincial governments, and Albertans who aren’t convinced that the only way to move Alberta forward is to tear it down.

Seek out a compelling alternative and engage in ethical discussions:  It’s easy to slag government policies by saying governments should be run like a business but framing the discussion in free market terms fails to acknowledge that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to monetize ethical and moral issues.

Sandel says policy discussions framed only in free market terms cannot address questions like:  What does a just society look like?  How do we address income inequity or social inequality? Do we have a moral responsibility for each other and if so, how does this responsibility shape our tax policies, our healthcare policies, our environmental policies, and our immigration policies?

From Twitter to Tocqueville

Politicians who refuse to discuss ethical and moral issues because they’re “not relevant” do not deserve the public’s trust.

Why?  Because they’re dumbing down the electorate.  An unthinking electorate responds to dog-whistle authoritarian governments.

People who go on to social media demanding the government incarcerate and/or deport Muslims and ban Islam are telling this and future governments that it’s okay to violate Muslims’ Charter Rights.  Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny says agreeing to forfeit someone’s human rights before the government teaches the government what is possible.

Yelling at these people on Twitter won’t change their minds; but engaging them in public discourse may help them understand what they’re really doing.

Sandel says the ability to reason together, to argue and listen to those with whom we disagree are civic skills–Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart”–that need our full attention free from the distraction of “blinking buzzing devices” that pull our eyes down to that tiny screen.

A terrible thing happened in Edmonton last night.  We owe it to ourselves and each other to try to understand what happened and why it continues to happen by engaging in public discourse, the habits of the heart.

*See Anna Maria Tremonti’s excellent interview with Michael Sandel which aired on CBC’s The Current on Sept 25, 2017  

This entry was posted in Crime and Justice, Politics and Government, Terrorism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to How Do We Talk About the Edmonton Terrorist Attack?

  1. jerrymacgp says:

    It was clearly an unconscionable act of indiscriminate violence, but was it truly “terrorism”? Terrorism involves acts of violence against the civil population in order to advance a political end. 9/11 was a terrorist act, as was Al Quada’s earlier, less successful attempt to bomb the WTC in the 90s. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 was a terrorist act, as were the bombings of mailboxes and such in Montreal in the late 1960s, leading up to the FLQ crisis. (I should note, this description also means act as against military targets cannot accurately be characterized as “terrorism”, unless they are carried out far from any battlefield against softened targets, such as mess halls, barracks and married quarters).

    But these so-called “lone wolf” attacks, carried out not as part of some co-ordinated effort and larger plan, but in complete isolation from any sort of command and control organization, do not rate the label “terrorism”; they can advance no political agenda, except to scare the civil populace, as they have no possibility of follow-through. They are simple crimes, pure and simple, and their perpetrators are simply violent, often deeply disturbed, criminals. Calling them “terrorists” lends them more credibility, and in some quarters legitimacy, than they deserve.

    I draw this distinction because acts of terrorism have been, and are, used by governments and police to restrict our liberties, whereas simple crimes have not, except in very limited and constrained circumstances. Overuse of the term “terrorist” threatens our society far more than any genuine terrorist threat.

    • Brent McFadyen says:

      Well said, the voice of reason speaks

    • Jerry, you make an important point. There is a difference between acts of terrorism and acts of extreme violence motivated by hatred (eg racism or misogyny). The 1989 Montreal Massacre was an act of extreme violence. The bombing of Air India Flight 182 was an act of terrorism. “Lone wolf” attacks are hard to categorize because Section 83.01 of the Criminal Code 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. It does not require the attack to be part of a coordinated effort or larger plan. This lack of connection to a terrorist cause is further complicated by the fact that terrorist groups take credit for an attack after the fact even though they had no idea it was being planned in the first place.
      We’ll learn more about the motivation behind this act in the coming days.

    • carlosbeca says:

      I agree – very well said. I for one do not think useful to promote this guy but the media will. They do not have enough news for 24/7 so they milk this stuff to death.

    • Dwayne says:

      jerrymacgp Fear is a very strong tool used by certain people. It just harbours more distrust and division.

  2. Einar Davison says:

    It is easy to scapegoat a race of people, especially when people don’t know any better, are not willing to open their minds to other cultures, ideas or thought that is different than their own. I find most people these days disappoint me, either they revel in their ignorant bliss, as it is easier to judge first and “let God sort them out”. Or else they treat justice and equality like some kind of fad. “I’ll save a whale because others in my peer group do and I want to be able to relate to them”. Their support is meaningless and capricious, that goes away when the fad is over. Once again you hit the nail on the head. We all need to be better informed, by legitimate sources or else we might become willing to give up our liberties as easily as they did in Germany in the 30’s.

    • Einar your reference to Germany giving up its freedoms was exactly the example used by Timothy Snyder in his book. Snyder said “In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the SS took the initiative to devise the methods of mass killing without orders to do so. They guessed what their superiors wanted and demonstrated what was possible. It was far more than Hitler had thought.” Chilling. That’s why we have to call these acts of “anticipatory obedience” before someone decides it’s OK to act on them.

  3. jane walker says:

    Thank you, Susan, for a timely and provocative blog. It is time for us to “try to understand what happened and why it continues to happen by engaging in public discourse, the habits of the heart”. Having agreed on that point, how do we set up the forum for this public discourse?
    I believe that we need to avoid the ‘blame game’ and get on to taking collective responsibility to spread an attitude of positive problem solving …. or something!! I am not expressing this well but I am soooooo tired of the tendency to blame the government or anyone else!! Grrrrr…..
    Let’s deal with a positive alternative. Let’s shut down that grating social media where the trolls are only too happy to throw stones!
    In any case, I hit the ‘reply’ button really to thank you, Susan, for keeping us on track with the issues and principles that are so important to a compassionate society!

    • You’re welcome Jane. Sandel says we can’t count on our politicians to rejuvenate public discourse. We need to insist our universities and schools better equip students to reason together. We also need to protect publicly funded broadcast media (like the CBC) which can present ideas more dispassionately because it’s not dependent on sensationalized reporting for ratings. Sandel didn’t mention townhall meetings but having attended a few in connection with the municipal election I believe they’re the perfect forum to discuss these sorts of issues. For example, why not ask our MP, MLA and city councillor to set up a joint townhall meeting to discuss what each level of government is doing to protect citizens from terror attacks. This could lead to a bigger discussion about the impact of such attacks on minorities and what we can all do to become better informed.

      • Jane Walker says:

        Thanks so much, Susan! These are great ideas for connecting to all ages. Edmonton reps and our premier have been terrific .. hope it’s contagious! Will circulate your response. Again, thank you!!

      • Jane Walker says:

        Thanks, Susan! Great thoughts and proposals.

  4. Ed Henderson says:

    Discourse, finger wagging, blogs, insults and asinine long winded speeches about Canadian values will not prevent any more killers from trying to create havoc.
    We need to find out how this evil miscreant got into our hallowed halls and plug the hole. We need to find out how our bureaucracy failed us, identify the failure and correct it. Quickly. If it was a shallow minded PM or other politicians ignorant generosity, then we deal with them by taking that power away.
    Next time will undoubtedly be a lot worse.

    • Ed, apparently the suspect was investigated by the RCMP in 2015 but there wasn’t enough evidence to consider him a security threat. This is interesting because the Criminal Code gives the authorities a wide range of options for investigation and ongoing monitoring if it is deemed necessary. I’m sure there will be a review of the decisions made in the 2015 investigation that resulted in releasing the suspect. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if every “closed” file is being reviewed just to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

  5. John Gulak says:

    Great piece, Susan. The answer is always to engage in the hard work of public discourse – the habits of the heart.

  6. UNFOLDINGS | We travel uncertain times, times of irrationalities and institutional fears – in these times our capacity to love, the compassion of our journeys and travails, our empathy, understanding of the human condition as it were is re-examined, tested – and our values, resilience and solidarity emerges in the great tapestry of our unique and collective universes; generous and humble acts unfold vis-à-vis our fellow-travellers and our neighbours. Alma & Affection, LCA |

  7. Leo, that is a beautiful sentiment. I sincerely believe that Canadians for the most part are reasonable and compassionate people. We deal with tragedy and emerge even stronger.

  8. Carlos Beca says:

    I too doubt this to be a terrorist attack. This is another case of a person that comes from a country where they saw nothing but violence. They bring with them traumas that I doubt very much are reversible. The results are what we witnessed. We know how difficult it is to treat our soldiers when they are exposed to months of war and violence, never mind people that are born and live with it for years. War destroys everything but people still believe in it. It makes money for those who sell the weapons, does not hurt those that profit from it and rarely resolves anything.
    Of course now we will have all the stories about it ad nausea but the fact of the matter is that more and more people cannot find ways of coping with their own mind stress because really there is not enough to go around and mental diseases continue to be ignored for the most part. Furthermore we still do not know how to treat mental diseases effectively. Consulting psychologists or psychiatrists at 150 dollars an hour is not for everyone. In most cases the results are to say the least mediocre.
    What I am more concerned about is that mental diseases are on the rise and I for one think that this could very well be another consequence of our relentless pollution creating lifestyles. It is very possible that climate change is the least of our problems.

    • Dwayne says:

      Carlos Beca I can agree with you. Anyone that can go through childhood trauma, can turn out to have a bitter adulthood and vent their anger and frustrations in some way.

  9. Dwayne says:

    Susan Thanks for another informative blog. It is well thought out and we written. It is too bad that you cannot go on YouTube, because there will be some flak given by some highly opinionated people.

  10. Carlos and Dwayne, Sean Fine, justice writer for the Globe & Mail wrote an article on what constitutes terrorism and what doesn’t. He says it comes down to motivation on the part of the perpetrator. He also points out that if the Crown thinks it has a strong case for first degree murder it may be reluctant to add the offence of terrorism which can be more difficult to prove. Here’s the link: https://sec.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebec-city-and-edmonton-attacks-why-its-difficult-to-lay-terrorism-charges-in-canada/article36479538/
    In any event, what I hoped to do by writing this post was to get people to think about how we respond to such attacks–we need to respond with reason and public discourse rather than 140 character Twitter attacks.

    • Dwayne says:

      Susan There is a lot of heated public opinions on social media right now. Look at the Energy East pipeline and how people are blaming Notley and Trudeau for what happened.

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