If we were setting out to compile a list of groups that we condemn or disapprove of, a strong case could be made for the inclusion of the Proud Boys. But Canada’s list of banned terrorist entities does not exist as a vehicle for expressing such sentiments and we should not be using it as such.
This past week, 13 additional groups were added to that list. Of those inclusions, 12 were relatively non-controversial. The inclusion of the Proud Boys, however, raises some legitimate questions and concerns.
Yes, the group holds radical political views and seem to have a thirst for violence (an “alt-right fight club” is how they’re described by one prominent anti-hate group), but the “terrorism” bar needs to be set higher than that. Politicizing this process seems both unwise and potentially counterproductive.
While a strong case exists for describing neo-Nazi groups like Atomwaffen Division and The Base as terrorist organizations, the Proud Boys were the only ones who were the subject of a motion in the House of Commons calling for such a designation (the NDP proposed the motion, which MPs passed unanimously).
It’s encouraging that our elected representatives take a dim view of far-right organizations, but this is a highly unusual intrusion into what should otherwise be a sober and objective process. It should not be influenced by the prevailing political attitudes of the moment.
Loosening the definition of “terrorism” could set a troubling precedent, one that could be abused for political purposes.
The Proud Boys indeed appear to have been involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill insurrection. The events of that day certainly crystalize the threat posed by far-right political extremism. Again, though, that’s not an excuse for political interference in this process. If anything, the rushed inclusion of the Proud Boys could prove embarrassing for the government.
While some Proud Boys members have been charged in connection with the insurrection, none of those charges have been proven in court. Absent any convictions, the case for listing the Proud Boys becomes much weaker.
This rationale exposes two additional problems for the decision. The fact that those involved in the insurrection are now facing serious charges demonstrates how criminal law provides a means to deal with this sort of political extremism.
Furthermore, it exposes the arbitrary nature of the decision. For example, there are members of the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers who have also been charged in connection with the insurrection. Yet we have not listed the Oath Keepers as a terrorist organization, even though a similar case could be made.
Some of these groups are more dangerous than others. Some are more organized that others (some may be considered more movements than actual groups). There are lone wolf actors who may subscribe to some or all of the beliefs of these groups. There is unquestionably a security threat that exists here, but a narrow counter-terrorism approach will leave many gaps.
Listing a group as a banned terrorist entity can provide some useful tools in targeting its leadership or disrupting its fundraising, but that has limited applications. The motion voted on in Parliament is rather vague with regard to these nuances as well as the broader question of how we deal with political extremism. It involves law enforcement, obviously, but also a broader de-radicalization approach. Ironically enough, it also involves political leaders.
The word “terrorist” is obviously a pejorative term, and so much of the conversation around the Proud Boys seems more about who can use the strongest language to denounce them than any sort of meaningful conversation about what these groups and movements represent and how we can counter them.
Politicizing counter-terrorism efforts only serves to erode public confidence in those efforts, as does making arbitrary decisions about which groups make the list and which do not. All of this may outweigh whatever marginal upside results from the listing of the Proud Boys.
This list is not a magic bullet and we not should rely on the listing process as our means of dealing with political extremism. Parliamentarians are right to be worried about groups like the Proud Boys, but their proposed solution — which has now been acted upon — misses the mark in many ways.