When Argument Becomes Comedy: Glenn Greenwald Blames Canada?

Commentary should be cautious when assigning responsibility for attacks, says Steve Saideman.
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October 23, 2014
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When South Park says “Blame Canada!,” we can laugh and the creators can be nominated for Oscars. When U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald says Blame Canada, it is unintentional comedy at best.

Greenwald had the worst of timing to issue a rant on The Intercept that blamed Canada for Monday’s fatal hit-and-run attack on a day when another Canadian Forces member was killed by some kind of terrorist. His article, in which he said he was surprised these acts of violence do not happen more often considering Canada proclaims itself to be at war, was published minutes before 9 a.m. on Wednesday. By 10 a.m., shootings had begun in the Capital.

It is too soon to understand well the dynamics of the events in Ottawa, but it is not too soon to argue that Greenwald has not only bad timing but bad judgment (and bad writing).

First, there are a lot of “scare quotes” used by Greenwald to make it seem like the government was making stuff up with regards to Martin Couture-Rouleau, the 25-year-old accused of hitting two soldiers with a car Monday in Quebec. Perhaps if Greenwald had gone to Couture-Rouleau’s Facebook page, he would have seen the ISIS banner and all the rest of the evidence that this individual was indeed a fan of the radical Islamist movement. The press conference on Tuesday revealed much that should have assured Greenwald that the Canadian government is not the kneejerk oppressive force that he imagines it to be. The RCMP was alerted to Couture-Rouleau, investigated, took his passport, but did not torture him or jail him. They could not punish him for the ideas in his head. But that would be inconvenient for Greenwald who likes to portray Western democracies as being obsessive and brutal in their surveillance efforts. The Couture-Rouleau case suggests instead that Canada’s “agents of repression” had good reason to monitor this guy, did their due diligence, but also did not violate his rights. Inconvenient indeed.

Second, yes, people in Canada were shocked on Monday and shocked again Wednesday. Why? Well, the aim of terrorism is to cause shock and dismay. Terrorism appears out of nowhere and hits people far from the battlefield, so of course people are surprised. Canada is hardly innocent in any way—it has engaged in violence and it has been attacked before by terrorists. The Air India attack killed over two hundred and sixty Canadians, but, again inconvenient for Greenwald, was committed not by Muslims but by Sikhs. So, Canada is familiar with terrorism, and has long seen it as not about Islam but about violence.

Third, the hyperbole here is not just unprofessional but inaccurate as well. “Wallowing in war glory?” Canada has been most ambivalent about the Afghanistan effort. Sure, the Canadian Forces are proud of what they tried to do, but, as a country, there has been much regret about “fighting alone” in Kandahar. Perhaps Greenwald should do some research about a place before speculating wildly about its stance on its most recent war.

Fourth, the article gets the causal order wrong. What was Canada doing to antagonize Islamist extremists before 9/11? At the time, Canada’s most recent military campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo were largely aimed at protecting the lives of Muslims. While Canada was still engaged in these efforts to help these Muslims, Al Qaeda struck the US and hurt Canada in the process—twenty plus Canadians were killed with the thousands of Americans. Indeed, Al Qaeda’s formation and grievances preceded the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fifth, Greenwald gets Afghanistan wrong as well. It was not some senseless effort to kill random Muslims. Canada surely killed Muslims, but also protected them as well from other Muslims. Perhaps the best evidence of Canada’s ability to work well with the populace of Afghanistan is that it suffered far, far less from the green on blue attacks. Again, an inconvenient bit of reality for Greenwald who knows little about Canada and what it has been doing for the past twenty years.

Sixth, Greenwald loses his focus when he argues that terrorism is defined by Westerners as violence directed at Westerners by Muslims. Actually, any dataset on terrorism, by scholars or Western governments, presents a central inconvenient truth—most terrorist violence is within a group. Islamist extremists have been far more violent to Muslims. This was true before 9/11 and remains true today with ISIS targeting Muslims more than Christians or Jews or anyone else.

One point Greenwald wants to make is that the CF personnel targeted on Monday were legitimate targets for those at war with Canada since they were in uniform. I guess he would say the same about Wednesday’s events, as the first target was a CF reservist at the National War Memorial and perhaps even that parliamentarians are fair game because they are government officials. But Greenwald is missing the key point here—that the attack was by a Canadian against his fellow Canadians. If terrorism is the wrong word, then how about treason? Given that Couture-Rouleau self-identified with a group engaged in extreme brutality, perhaps one ought not to crow about how earned this violence was?

There is a nugget of truth in the Greenwald screed: that the Conservative government politicized the events on Monday by planting the question about it in Question Period, which was the first many had heard of it. It was, indeed, convenient for legislation the government was already tabling. That truly is problematic. The reactions today have been far less politicized. We do need take care to react carefully and proportionately to this week’s events. Canada’s existence is not threatened, so we need not sacrifice much liberty for our security.

Other than that nugget, I am not sure what the take away should be from Greenwald’s argument. That Canada should not join its allies when those with extreme views about a religion use all means at their disposal, including rape, mass killings and other war crimes, to seek to subjugate entire regions? Or that Canada should just accept the violence aimed by radicalized extremists as just desserts? All I am sure of is that we ought not direct readers to Greenwald’s posts because his trolling of Canada is probably aimed at inflating the number of clicks he received. His intent clearly is not to inform, or else he could have engaged in some research.