Terrorist or mentally ill? Does it matter?

Ottawa, my home town, was traumatized this week when a shooter cold-bloodedly murdered an unarmed sentry at the War Memorial in our downtown core. With all due respect to British comic, Russell Brand, who immediately began parsing words like “terror” and “cold-blooded,”  a shooter who creeps up on a man and shoots in him in the back is a cold-blooded killer. I don’t think that can be, or should be, the subject of debate.

What can be discussed, debated and parsed, however, is whether the shooter, Michael Zahef-Bibeau,  was  mentally ill or an “ISIS-inspired terrorist,” as the police, government and media have reported, or both, and whether it makes a difference.

The RCMP at first told us that Bibeau’s mother said he planned to go to Syria. They inferred from that that he planned to  join ISIS. She denied that report, and says it was Saudi Arabia, where he wanted to study Islam and the Koran. RCMP has now acknowledged they made a mistake when listening to her interview tape.

The mother thinks her son  was mentally ill, and that he was frustrated after being denied a passport to go to Libya, although he was a dual citizen. Those who knew him say his behavior was bizarre; he was difficult to be around; he was argumentative and didn’t fit in. He once asked to be jailed so he could get over his crack addiction and when the police refused, he robbed a fast food outlet with a pointed stick and then waited for the police to come and get him.

People with mental illness can be violent, and when they are, there’s no doubt it’s  terrifying. A man hears demons urging him to kill someone and beheads his fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus.  Another young man with a troubled history dismembers his former lover and mails his body parts to the Prime Ministers Office and the Liberal Party of Canada. A young man dressed in camouflage hunts down and kills three Mounties in Moncton. In each case, the public was frightened and traumatized, but we understood these were crimes, not terrorist acts.

The Bibeau shooting is not so clear. It came two days after another murder: two soldiers were run over, one killed, by another Islamic convert who seems to have been equally disturbed. That too has been described as ISIS-inspired.

That said,  there is a big difference between travelling to Syria to fight with ISIS and going to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran. If the only link between Bibeau and ISIS left that we know of is an email address found on a hard drive of an ISIS terrorist, even RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledges that’s a pretty weak connection.  (We have been provided almost no information about its contents. Was it an email address only or was there an email? If the latter, what did it say? Who emailed who? Who’s the  terrorist?)

Bibeau was found fit to stand trial in Vancouver a few years ago; some people will look to that and say that means he wasn’t crazy. But that’s of little help. So long as someone is capable of instructing counsel, we say they’re fit for trial.

And as for insanity, the test is only this: do they know right from wrong? If so,  they’re not legally insane. And so in one of the early cases I studied as a  law student, a man who believed God had told him to kill his neighbor — who in fact argued with God that doing so would be morally wrong — finally killed his neighbor after God impressed upon him that God’s will should prevail. Charged with murder, he was found fit to stand trial and he was convicted. He wasn’t legally  insane, because he could appreciate the difference between right and wrong

The more I hear about Bibeau, the more I think he was unhinged. He acted alone; that much  seems certain.  Converting to Islam is not a crime. While the police claim he was “self-radicalized,” I’m not convinced that the evidence so far can take us that far. An attack on Parliament and the War Memorial may appear to establish radical intent, but we have to remember, crazy people often go after public symbols.

John Hinckley, Jr. shot the President of the United States because he wanted to get Jodi Foster’s attention. The fact that he went after the man who symbolized US power didn’t make it a terrorist act. And that’s what makes this so difficult and why we need to be measured in our responses.

Does it matter whether Bibeau was mentally ill or whether it was a terrorist act? Of course it does, because the government has to decide how to prevent a similar occurrence. Beefing up security on the Hill makes sense and is long overdue. But another response at the moment is to talk about new laws that will allow people who condone ISIS to be charged.

I’m not sure that’s the solution or even how it could stand up constitutionally, given the right to freedom of expression. Quite apart from that, it seems to me that the soldiers memorialized at the Cenotaph fought and died for rights like that one: it’s what we mean by a free and democratic society. W-5 aired a show  last night that gave some context to ISIS, including an interview with a CSIS operative who spoke compellingly and sympathetically of how young Islamic men can be radicalized, and how they see ISIS as providing their lives a greater purpose. Would new laws mean that shows like that would be considered “condoning” ISIS and lead to charges?

Here’s what troubles me about these two incidents: that the two men engaged in them were both denied passports. Mentally ill or not, it seems to me that if we think someone is too dangerous to travel to another country for any reason,  then they might just be too dangerous to let them roam freely around Canada either.

“We don’t want to export terrorists to other countries where they might carry out terrorist acts,” was Commissioner Paulson’s explanation. I agree with his rationale, but I think we’re entitled to the same protection.



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Plot twists

This little video portrays in a few seconds the tension we try to achieve in a manuscript. We have only a couple of opening lines to grab a reader’s attention and have them wonder, what’s going on? And then we surprise them. If this was a fictional short story, we’d fall in love with the characters. How wonderful that it’s real!

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Writing by committee …

The problem with using external readers is that they often provide conflicting advice. I’ve sent my historical fiction manuscript (ms), Famine Bay, to several. Some liked the plot device; others didn’t. One suggested I rewrite the entire manuscript to change the point of view; that ain’t going to happen.  I had readers who suggested I put in more backstory about the main characters, and after I did, other readers who suggested I take it out.

That’s when the process gets frustrating.

I remember doing that to The Beggar’s Opera — revising it to meet the whim of every agent who gave me feedback, only to have them all pass on the book anyway. Seventy revisions later, when I did get an agent, he suggested undoing some of the things I’d done at the suggestion of other agents.

So …. rather than try to sort this out on my own, I’ve passed the ms along to Alexander Schultz, a freelance editor, for feedback. Alex has worked on three of my books for Penguin Canada and Simon and Schuster Canada. He knows where and when to push me and also knows that I prefer to be told how to “improve” something that isn’t working rather than “remove” it. I think he’ll be worth every penny


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A Literary Analysis of The Beggar’s Opera …

A Belgian graduate student, Alexandra Sanchez, wrote a very interesting article recently in which she  compared the world view expressed in The Beggar’s Opera  to that of Leon Padura in his mystery novel Pasado Perfecto.

It’s a very compelling analysis. Distilled to its essence, she concludes that my perceptions of Cuba (its poverty, and communism) as an outsider reflect an inherent Western supremacy and  that Paduro, a native Cuban, doesn’t really mention these things: they’re a given. Overall, she finds his work more sympathetic to Castro and communism.

I think an outsider writing about another culture will flag things that strike them as inconsistent with their own world view and therefore of interest. So I agree with her: I mention all kinds of things, including the history of the island, that Paduro doesn’t.

But if you read the second book in the series, The Poisoned Pawn, I’m pretty critical of western institutions too (this is a theme that gets further developed in Hungry Ghosts and Umbrella Man, yet to be published). I think that’s a result of my human rights background, which may in itself make the reviewer’s point.

Anyway, here’s a link to the Google translation of the article, Poetics and Politics and the so-called Ethnic Detective.  (I wish I read Dutch, but one of my readers, who is Dutch, says it’s impeccably written). If you do read Dutch, you’ll likely find the original article of interest: here’s the link.

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How about an art exhibit related to a book series?

The more I think about the idea of an art exhibition running hand-in-hand with the launch of a new book, the more I like it. I was initially thinking of something where artists might donate their work, but that’s a huge ask. Instead, imagine a book launch that promotes not just an author, but the imaginations of readers who are talented enough to draw/paint the emotions the book evokes in them?

An art gallery in one of the villages in the Eastern Townships has done something similar with respect to Louise Penny’s wonderful series; I think it’s brilliant. Take a look and let me know what you think. I’ve contacted my artist pals to see if they might be interested in taking a run at the Inspector Ramirez series; after all, what could be more evocative than Cuba?

I always have my launches at a local art gallery; I think it would be super cool to have the launch and an exhibition of art based on the book (or books) at the same time. If you’re an artist and you’re interested, let me know: I can arrange to get you an advance copy. Hungry Ghosts will be out at the end of June, with Simon and Schuster.

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Wanted: artists!

UPDATE:   See my next post. I’m now thinking that instead of a silent auction, there should be a themed exhibition of art related to the series. So I still want artists (I’ll get you a free book for inspiration), but I want you to be able to display your work and get paid if it sells! Kind of a win-win situation, don’t you think?


The next book in my Inspector Ramirez series, Hungry Ghosts, will be out next June, and I’ve been thinking that for the  book launch, it might be fun to try to get have some art related to the Inspector Ramirez series donated and hold a silent auction. We could auction off the art and  donate the proceeds to an appropriate charity. Maybe something related to the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, since that’s a huge part of the plot. Or one of the many organizations providing relief to Cuba.

I’ve always had my book launches in an art gallery; I’m sure we could get a good crowd. What do you think? Anyone in? The series is set in Cuba but Hungry Ghosts has a big part of it set in northern Ontario on a reserve, so that ought to push some creative buttons. Can’t give tax receipts, but I can give anyone who participates a book!

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Dealing with criticism.

As authors, we put our work “out there.” Not everyone likes it, anymore than not everyone we meet will like us either, or we them. But I think it’s important that we pay attention to readers’ criticisms. We can learn a lot from them.

My book, The Poisoned Pawn, was recently panned on one of the discussion threads on the Absolute Write Water Cooler, an online chatroom that I belong to. (The person who read it felt strongly enough about it to start a new thread!)

The criticism levied against it (that it’s an info-dump) spawned a very interesting discussion in which a number of authors talked about the differences between info-dumping and exposition, and how we sometimes overdo it.

We’re often advised as authors that we shouldn’t to respond to a negative review, but I thought that as the author whose book was on the table, I should maybe introduce myself.

Have a look at what happened. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) These are extracts: there were lots  of other comments before and after each one, as you can see by the numbers in the upper right corner. It was an informative exchange about the challenge of writing for different audiences and how important it is not to turn readers off.

I think the more important lesson here, though, is that when people are critical of your work, you don’t have to stay out of the discussion:  there are ways to respond that can make the whole experience pretty positive.

(If you belong to AW, you can follow the entire discussion about info-dumping  right here.)



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Pet Peeves – Dialect instead of Dialogue

I confess: I really hate reading books where the authors have decided to write dialogue in dialect. I don’t want to read a book where I have to struggle to figure out what people are saying. As soon as the dialect makes it hard to read, I give up and put it down. (Yes, I know Mark Twain got away with this, but that was a long time ago. Writing in dialect doesn’t work quite so well now.)

There are ways to let a reader know a character’s culture or ethnicity without turning their language into gibberish. Brad Smith does this beautifully in Crow’s Landing, for example: he has a Russian character who “reads” as Russian because of the words he uses and  a few dropped prepositions.

Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize for 419, a story partly set in Nigeria. He told me in a TV interview on my show, Getting Published, that he realized  quickly that he only needed a few Nigerian words here and there to get his characters situated and that trying to write dialogue with an accent wouldn’t have worked.

I tried reading a historical novel recently where all the “you’s” had been replaced with “ye’s” and it drove me absolutely nuts.

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a novel set in the 1400s called The Moor’s Account, which is due to hit bookstores this month. It  managed to totally convey the time, setting, and the different nationalities of characters who ranged from Moorish to Spanish to indigenous without altering the English language; one could imagine the characters speaking with different accents without being smacked upside the head with them.

I am in the final stages of writing  a historical novel set in the 1600s. My characters are French, First Nation, and English. I’ve conveyed their ethnicity and cultural differences by the words they used to describe things and the way they see the world. Their voices are completely different; some are formal, some are youthful, some are skeptical. It’s those voices that tell us who they are; I don’t need to force them into dialect for a reader to know which person is speaking or where they’re from.

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