While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t the only politician to describe terrorist violence as “senseless,” the frequency with which he draws on that particular adjective is striking. Consider some examples of his official statements.
November 2015: “Canada stands with France at this dark time and offers all possible assistance. We will continue to work closely with the international community to help prevent these terrible, senseless acts.”
January 2016: “We are deeply saddened by these senseless acts of violence on innocent civilians [in Burkina Faso].”
March 2016: “Those responsible for carrying out these senseless attacks [in Brussels] must be brought to justice.”
July 2016: “Senseless acts like this one [in Nice] are not isolated events, and we will continue to work with our allies and partners to fight terrorism in all of its forms.”
What does it mean for a terrorist attack to be senseless? Does the prime minister’s choice of words offer us any insight into his broader views on terrorism? “Senseless” is generally defined as “without discernible meaning or purpose.” Perhaps Trudeau is simply articulating what he perceives to be an innocuous and widely shared feeling that the deaths of innocents are a tragic waste, that there was no good reason for them to be killed.
But the description of terrorist acts as senseless is quite inaccurate. Worse, it helps craft a public narrative that obscures our society’s ability to understand and address the phenomenon of terrorism.
Calling terrorism senseless is to call it mindless, essentially divesting agency, purpose, and deliberation from the perpetrators. From there, it’s not difficult to make several erroneous assumptions.
One is that terrorists are mentally ill individuals performing illogical acts. Indeed, synonyms for “senseless” include “crazy,” “irrational” and “mad.” While some terrorists may indeed be mentally ill, the large majority are not, and rarely is the degree of illness sufficient for a judge to find them not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder.
This assumption also overlooks the fact that terrorist atrocities aren’t hatched in isolation. They’re spawned in a sea inhabited by millions of people who support or sympathize in some way with the objectives and methods of the terrorist organization of their choice, and who do not suffer from delusion or psychosis.
Another mistaken assumption is that terrorist violence is an inevitable and natural byproduct of some other condition or root cause, such as poverty, unemployment, alienation or exclusion. While these may be factors in individual cases, to perceive terrorism as senseless runs the risk of negating or reducing the actors’ moral or legal responsibility by holding up external circumstances as the culprit.
Consulting the Criminal Code may be helpful here. In broad terms, it defines terrorist activity as violence committed for a political, religious or ideological purpose with the intention of intimidating the public or compelling a government or person to do or refrain from doing any act. Flowing from this view is the notion that as political actors, terrorists are rational. They’re motivated by deeply held beliefs or ideologies, and they believe their actions will help achieve their goals.
While terrorism doesn’t typically secure the group’s strategic goals, it’s often highly effective in achieving tactical successes. These include weakening and punishing the group’s adversaries; provoking extreme government reactions, which can drive up support for the terrorists; gaining publicity, often leading to greater recruitment of volunteers; receiving ransom payments; and securing the release of imprisoned terrorists.
The point is that terrorists believe their brand of violence makes sense. They act according to thinking which is no less purposeful, strategic, meaningful or rational than that of other actors in other conflicts.
Formulating a plan to fight terrorism, as the prime minister has pledged to do, requires conceptual precision and clarity. As a first step, he may want to find a replacement for the word “senseless” to describe the next terrorist act that’s sure to come.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.