Canada’s home-grown jihad
The headline story is that Islamic terrorism reaches Canada. The real story is perhaps more disturbing. It is how ill-prepared Canada is for any kind of home-grown terrorism, Islamist or otherwise.
Not to sound unkind, but the fact is that Canada's highly paid, well-armed security services failed to prevent a lone gunman penetrating the seat of national power and nearly taking out much of the legislature. On the other hand, they did manage to lock thousands of children in their classrooms and sow public panic by mistakenly suggesting that other gunmen were on the loose. When the intruder was finally stopped in his tracks, it was not a police officer who shot him. It was a ceremonial official who just happened to know how to handle a firearm.
Canada's security establishment has a lot to answer for. But how much do you want to bet their answer will be to call for more powers to lock up suspected terrorists or listen to their phone-calls? Yet, by the police's own admission, the shooter in Wednesday's attack, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was not a suspected terrorist. He was a troubled young man with a criminal record.
That hardly puts him in exclusive company. The picture emerging is of someone with inexplicable rage who found in Islamic radicalism a worldview that made sense of his own problems. And he apparently concluded that his problems could all be given meaning in a final act that purified him in a healing bonfire.
This is a lot more common than one might suppose. Random acts of terror often multiply in times when rising prosperity coincide with worsening inequality, leaving a growing body of the population feeling marginalised. In the late 19th century, it was anarchists, not Islamists, who were killing innocent people without explanation. Today, in a world in which most of the planet's wealth is again being drawn into the hands of the top one per cent while real wages fall for most, it can be expected there will be more of this.
Young men are a particular threat at the moment. For starters, most violence is committed by young men. When you give them a sense of powerlessness on top of that, they become a relatively large risk. One of the new trends that emerged in the Great Recession is that unemployment and falling real wages have hit young people especially hard. The decline of traditionally male trades has then aggravated this trend, giving many young men who would have once graduated into stable jobs a sense of drift.
So Islamic fundamentalism now plays the role that was once played by radical ideologies: giving angry young men a justification for their anger. For all the horrific doings of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and its talk of taking its crusade right into Western homes, for now, it's just talk. There is no compelling evidence ISIS has the capacity to export its operations far beyond its immediate perimeter - and some question just how long it can even hold its current perimeter.
But what it and organisations like it can do is provide inspiration to young men looking to reclaim a sense of power. What better way to taste power than to bring a city to a standstill? This is why an overreaction actually gives the terrorists the victory they wanted. Terrorism aims to sow general panic in a population in order to weaken its resolve. If the end result of this attack is to create a sense of insecurity that causes Canadians to renounce some of the liberties that make their society so attractive, ISIS propagandists will be toasting their easy victory.
n John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.