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.