Update on the Quebec mosque shooting

Last night, soon after it happened, I wrote about the shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. As I warned, some of the information being reported initially was inaccurate — par for the course in these kinds of situations. But the main details turned out to be correct.

Here is what it now being reported with reasonable confidence:

There was one shooter. He is Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27 year-old political science student.

Bissonnette has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder using a restricted firearm, numbers that correspond to the number of people killed and injured. He appears to have acted alone despite initial reports of a second gunman.

Bissonnette had no previous criminal record. He is said to be an introvert who was bullied in school.

An organization that helps Syrian refugees settle in Quebec says that Bissonnette’s name and photograph are familiar. It states that he is “known by several activists in Quebec City for his viewpoints that were pro-Le Pen and anti-feminist, as expressed in social media and at Université Laval” where Bissonnette is a student.

A fellow student, who has known Bissonnette since high school, says the shooter had developed radical views. The fellow student added: “He was not overtly racist or Islamophobic, but he had borderline misogynist, Islamophobic viewpoints.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard have characterized the shooting as “terrorism.” However, Bissonnette has not been charged with any terrorism-related offences.

Asked why, the prosecutor explained that Bissonnette was charged according to the evidence available. However, he left open the possibility of adding terrorism charges depending on what evidence emerges. “You’ll understand that the events happened very recently,” the prosecutor told reporters.

Section 83.01 of the Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public “. . .with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.”

Based on initial reports about Bissonnette, including those mentioned above, the crimes he’s accused of may well have been committed in part for a political/ideological purpose — e.g. to deter Muslims from gathering in public to pray and/or to drive them out of the area. However, the evidence at this stage appears to be too thin to support this conclusion.

It may be that Bissonnette shot up the mosque simply because he hates Muslims, without any intent to intimidate anyone or affect the political or policy landscape. In that event, his action might more properly be characterized as a hate crime than as terrorism.

In Canada, and here too quite possibly, the line between hate crime and terrorism seems blurred.

I don’t know how important it is to characterize Bissonnette’s act as terrorism, hate crime, both, or neither. If he did what is alleged, his crime is heinous and should result in the strongest punishment allowed under law.

But we can expect endless discussion about whether Bissonnette is a terrorist, so I thought I should offer an initial take on how to think about the question.

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