“In spite of everything that was said, I am not a terrorist, nor Islamophobic… [I am] more a person who was carried away by fear and a horrible form of despair.” These words are from a statement Alexandre Bissonnette read in court on March 28, 2018 after pleading guilty to the charges laid against him for opening fire in a Quebec City masjid in January 2017 — charges that did not include terrorism.
Bissonnette stormed the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City on the evening of January 29, 2017 and opened fire on worshippers gathered for prayers. He was charged the following day with six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder, but not terrorism, even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard both referred to Bissonnette’s crime as terrorism.
Until the beginning of March, Bissonnette refused to plead guilty to even the murder charges. He changed his mind “to spare the victims and their families from going through a trial and reliving the tragedy,” he told the court on March 28. But the short-lived court proceedings, and some of the disturbing details that emerged in the process, raise many questions, one of which is why Bissonnette has not been charged with terrorism.
Lawyers have argued that a terrorism charge would have unnecessarily complicated the prosecution without actually affecting Bissonnette’s punishment. A single charge of first-degree murder, which is much easier to prove, carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. Even in the absence of the terrorism charge, Bissonnette faces up to 150 years in prison with no parole for killing six and injuring 19.
It is clear that Bissonnette could have very likely been found guilty of terrorism had he been so charged. Since 9/11, terrorism has been defined by Canada’s Criminal Code as any act committed “for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” that has “the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public with regard to its security.”
Legal experts have said that this charge can be difficult to prove in the case of a “lone wolf” like Bissonnette. Although Bissonnette may not have acted at the incitement of a recognized terrorist group, a recently revealed 45-page document containing information found by prosecutors on his computer clearly identifies some of his sources of inspiration.
The findings include a photo of Bissonnette sporting a red “Make America Great Again” hat. He searched for US President Donald Trump a total of 819 times across Twitter (417 times), Google, YouTube and Facebook. He also obsessively followed Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Alex Jones of Infowars, conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, as well as Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer and Ben Shapiro, three stalwarts of the Islamophobia industry. He checked Shapiro’s Twitter account 93 times in the month before the shooting.
He also searched for information about firearms, Islam, feminists, and ISIS. He devoted many hours looking up mass murderers like Marc Lépine and Dylann Roof. Lépine killed 14 women at a Montreal engineering school in 1989, and Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
On January 28, 2017, Bissonnette read a tweet by Justin Trudeau, issued a day after the introduction of Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” suggesting that Canada was ready to welcome more refugees. By noon on January 29, Bissonnette — who had a history of depression and suicidal tendencies — started drinking. He also repeatedly visited the website of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City that day, as well as Breitbart News.
Later in the day, Bissonnette left his parents’ home carrying two semi-automatic weapons, which he had legally purchased, and stormed the masjid to empty them. In the course of the investigation that followed, Bissonnette claimed that he had feared that his parents or brother might be “killed by terrorists.” He added that he had potentially saved “hundreds of people” by his action, and that he had intended to kill himself soon after the shooting. A social worker recently testified that in September 2017, Bissonnette had said that he regretted not killing more people on that day.
Bissonnette’s entire trajectory leading up to the crime, not to mention the crime itself, reek of terrorism. If a Muslim had been in Bissonnette’s place, it is not difficult to imagine that he or she may have been perceived to be involved in some form of terrorism at many points along that trajectory — from browsing through certain types of content online to purchasing guns — long before actually committing a crime.
This is the reason why a terrorism charge in Bissonette’s case may have proved very reassuring for all Canadians, and especially for Canadian Muslims, even if it may have prolonged and complicated Bissonnette’s trial without actually affecting his punishment. It would have served as a reminder that Canada treats terrorism as terrorism, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator or the victim. As many commentators have pointed out, the way the case actually unfolded only reinforces the notion that Canadians of certain backgrounds are more easily perceived to be terrorists than others.
At the same time, Bissonnette’s case has arguably received some differential treatment in public discourse. It has been brought to the public’s attention, for example, that Bissonnette was bullied in school, that he was introverted, that he liked hunting, that he opposed gun control and was pro-Israel, that he was an intelligent and studied anthropology and political science at Laval University, that he has expressed constant concern for his parents, and that he worked for Héma-Québec, the provincial blood bank.
One would be hard-pressed to find examples of the mainstream media reporting so many humanizing details about the life of an alleged or convicted criminal of a different background — and even more so if the crime is arguably an act of terrorism.
And, of course, had a Muslim committed this kind of crime, one could expect endless discussion about the people, movements, and worldviews that had inspired him or her to do so. One hopes that a similar discussion will also continue to take place in Bissonnette’s case and that the hate-spewing rhetoric of the likes of Richard Spencer and Ben Shapiro will get their fair share of spotlight in it.
Bissonnette, as has been noted, has said, “I am not a terrorist, nor Islamophobic.” At a recent court hearing, Louiza Mohamed Said, who was widowed because of his actions, tearfully asked the judge to “forever preserve the memory of our deceased and our victims; support our cause and that of millions of Canadians, the cause to condemn terrorism, Islamophobia and all forms of violence and hate at the heart of Canadian society.”
Perhaps she will find comfort in the fact that Bissonnette is likely to receive a sentence similar to that of a convicted terrorist, even if he isn’t one.