Memorializing the Victims of Terrorism

Definitions of Terrorism and the Canadian Context

Definitions of Terrorism and the Canadian Context

The past few decades have witnessed an increase in the scholarship produced regarding terrorism. Critical to this body of literature has been the definition of terrorism. Although defining terrorism has proven to be a highly contentious issue, there is some agreement among academics that the term is highly malleable and is hence, open to many different definitions and interpretations (Staiger et al. 2008; Weinberg et al. 2004; Fletcher 2006).

Many factors have been identified as contributing to the complexity involved in determining the definition of "terrorism." According to Weinberg et al. (2004), the primary factors that impede any attempt to provide a formal definition of terrorism include the use of the term for political purposes; problems associated with the scope of the term (i.e. identifying where terrorism begins and ends); and issues associated with the analytical characteristics of terrorism.  Others argue that much of the difficulty surrounding the definition of terrorism stems from the need to develop a concrete meaning of the term (Grob-Fitzgibbon 2005; Fletcher 2006). For example, Grob-Fitzgibbon (2005) argues that the term remains ambiguous as a result of governments and scholars seeking to define the term too broadly so as to classify any form of unconventional violence as terrorism. Rather, the author suggests that governments and academics avoid "general" definitions of terrorism and instead acknowledge the various meanings the term may occupy. Despite this call to utilize the numerous and varied definitions of terrorism, legal definitions continue to serve as the primary and formally recognized definitions utilized by many governments and people. Given the scope of this project, it is critical that such terms subsequently serve as the foundation on which this report is based.

In Canada, section 83.01 of the Criminal Code[1] 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." Activities recognized as criminal within this context include death and bodily harm with the use of violence; endangering a person’s life; risks posed to the health and safety of the public; significant property damage; and interference or disruption of essential services, facilities or systems.  It is useful to briefly contrast this definition with those adopted by other nations operating under law systems similar to that of Canada.  According to the British Terrorism Act (2006), terrorism refers to the use and threat of action "designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public" and "made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause."  Similar to the legal definition of terrorism in Canada, violence against people; damage to property; endangerment of life; and risks to the health or safety of the public are the key actions addressed within the Act. In the United States, terrorism is defined as consisting of activities that "involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State….intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation; or…affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."  Finally, the legal definition of terrorism in the European Union can be found in the EU Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism (2002) which identifies terrorism as activities with the aim of "seriously intimidating a population, or; unduly compelling a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or; seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation." Activities that may be deemed terrorist under this framework include attacks on people resulting in death, kidnapping or hostage taking and extensive destruction to a government or public facility.  Although it is widely acknowledged that attempts to establish a definition of terrorism that transcends various national borders have been largely unsuccessful (Staiger et al. 2008), the definitions presented clearly show that some consistency can be found in the various definitions employed by the governments of many Western democracies. Given these similarities, the approaches adopted by these governments toward the issue of victims of terrorism may provide some key insights on the various ways other governments can address the multiple issues that affect victims of terrorism. 

In addition, the definitions described above also provide some support to the claim made by scholars that there are also consistencies in the terms used to characterize terrorism. In their empirical study on the definitions of terrorism utilized in three prominent terrorism journals, Weinberg et al. (2004) found that "violence," "threat(s)," and "politically motivated tactics" were among the key descriptors used to define terrorism.  Marsella and Moghaddam (2004) note similar findings in their own research but include "influence/coercion" and "fear" as critical characteristics of terrorism.  

Like the definition of terrorism, significant attention has also been given towards explicating the different kinds and types of terrorism.  In general, research shows that there are three basic forms of terrorism – international terrorism, domestic terrorism and transnational terrorism (Staiger et al. 2008; Hough 2007).  However, each basic form is also comprised of other sub-types that largely inform their basis. According to Grob-Fitzgerald (2005), terrorism can be broken down into four broad forms: national terrorism – terrorist activities involving national borders; revolutionary terrorism – activities aimed at the philosophical and political nature of government; reactionary terrorism – activities concerned with preventing societal and governmental changes; and religious terrorism whereby violence is used to further religious objectives. Staiger et al. (2008) also include vigilante terrorism and single-issue terrorism as among the important forms of terrorism.

Given the social, political and cultural environment in which terrorism is often based, efforts have also been made to contextualize the problem as it features for various states. In Canada, this research has been scarce; however, two notable studies in this area are those conducted by Ross and Gurr (1989), and Leman-Langlois and Brodeur (2005).  In their 1989 comparative analysis of political terrorism in Canada and the United States, Ross and Gurr established that there were roughly 500 politically motivated terrorist events that occurred in Canada between 1960 and 1985 (85 percent of which were domestic).  Concerned with identifying the reasons behind the decrease in oppositional terrorism in Canada, the authors cite pre-emption, deterrence, backlash and burnout as the primary reasons behind the drop in domestic political terrorism in Canada.  The second study presents a contemporary analysis of terrorism in Canada.  Utilizing more than 400 terrorist "situations" that occurred in Canada between 1973 and 2003, the authors developed an operational typology of terrorism (Leman-Langlois and Brodeur 2005). Some of the "situations" utilized by the authors to develop their typology include acts of vandalism by particular rights-based groups, acts of arson such as those committed by the members of the Doukhobor "Sons of Freedom," and acts of intimidation such as a 1986 incident in which a bomb was placed in a Canadian Immigration Centre.  Based on the authors’ typology, terrorism in Canada has been governed by four underlying rationales: demand based terror – activities geared towards a perceived problem; private justice terror – activities with the intent of attaining retribution; revolutionary terror – terror aimed at changes at the state level; and restoration terror – activities aimed at re-establishing a historical condition.  Regarding the current face of terrorism in Canada, the authors stipulate that the Canadian context of terrorism is now more than ever, marked by transnational terrorism, ambiguous ownership of terrorist activities, and the link between religiously- and politically-motivated terrorist activities.  It should be noted, however, that although this typology attempts to cover the Canadian experience of terrorism, it cannot be construed as exhaustive. As Staiger et al. (2008) note, the presence of multiple forms of terrorism makes it inherently difficult to make claims regarding the identification of all types of terrorism within a given context.  Nonetheless, there are certain violent events that have been recognized and cited as Canadian terrorist events because they occurred in Canada and/or Canadian citizens were victimized as a result of the events.

One event that has received extensive attention from the media, the federal government and the general Canadian public is the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. Described as the one of the worst cases of Canadian terrorism, the bombing took the lives of 389 people – 280 of whom were Canadian citizens. Other recent Canadian examples of terrorism include the Bali nightclub bombings, the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, and the criminal acts of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).  These events and others situate the context of this report and provide some of the background behind the impetus to memorialize the victims of terrorism.

Any endeavour to explain the context of terrorism in Canada must also consider the ways extreme acts of violence and terrorist-type events have featured in Canada.  Examining these instances of violence and terror can contribute towards a more comprehensive analysis of victims’ issues related to terrorism, especially where Canadian literature on particular issues related to victims and terrorism may be scarce.  This juxtaposition is based primarily on the fact that both types of events share several similar characteristics. For example, research shows that terrorist acts and extreme acts of non-terrorist violence are at many times, motivated by hate (Sternberg 2003).  According to Sternberg (2003), hatred functions as a critical premise of acts of violence such as terrorism, genocide and massacres. For Jagger (2005), acts of violence can be rendered terrorist in the instances where personal prejudices about particular groups of individuals are used to fuel violence against those groups.   A second characteristic shared by acts of terrorism and non-terrorist acts of violence is that both types of events are at times, motivated by particular ideologies. Scholars have long recognized the influential role ideology plays in terrorist motivation (Drake 1998; Hoffman 1995).  Whether religiously or politically based, ideologies are central components of terrorism that can be used to encourage peoples’ participation in terrorist activities (Hudson 1999).  This critical assessment can also be applied to "non-terrorist" acts of violence. Racist and sexist ideologies are, but a few examples of particular ideologies that may function in non-terrorist acts of violence. The 1989 Montreal Massacre is exemplary of this form of violence. In light of these and other justifications, the discussions to follow in this report incorporate various Canadian and international instances of non-terrorist violence in an attempt establish a framework for addressing the memorialization needs of victims.  

When we think of victims of terrorism, we need to consider the issues that relate to the different levels of victimization experienced by victims (Hill 2004). According to Hill (2004, 83), victimization through terrorism may be experienced at direct, secondary, and community levels, all of which may vary in terms of the extent and kind of victimization. Staiger et al. (2008) present a similar classification of victims of terrorism. The authors note that although the term "victim" may be used to refer to all individuals that experience some form of direct injury, emotional harm and or suffering as a result of an act of terrorism, vicarious or indirect victims are individuals that were not direct targets of terrorists, but nonetheless experienced fear, anxiety and other related stressors following a terrorist attack (i.e. the general public).  This notion of direct and indirect victimization is significant because it highlights the importance of considering the needs of the general public alongside the needs of victims and their families.

As we see, what motivates an attack or who is attacked is part of what may determine the form memorialization of victims may take.  A further distinction is whether or not the attack takes place in Canada or overseas, and how what proportion of the victims are Canadians.[2]  Unfortunately, this important area of inquiry does not appear to have been addressed yet as a theme in the academic literature and, therefore, cannot be dealt with in a substantive manner in this report.

Although there many issues associated with victimization following terrorist events, trauma has been identified as among the most critical issues victims may face (Miller 2003; Updegraff et al. 2008). Issues particular to victims of terrorism under the broad spectrum of trauma include post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, and survivors’ guilt (Hill 2004). In addition to issues related to trauma, Shichor (2007) distinguishes the public response to victims of terrorism as an important area in victimological studies of victimization through terrorism. According to the author, victims of terrorism are more likely than other victims of crime to receive sympathy from the public.  In addition, Shichor (2007, 277) stipulates that victims of terrorism are also less likely to be stigmatized and labelled "weak" as a result of their victimization and are thereby free of the negative psychological effects associated with such a label.  Overall, there are many issues to consider when addressing the needs of victims of terrorism.  Memorializing these victims may be one way to address the issues related to their victimization; however, some consideration of the ways memorialization can be used to assist in the healing process is necessary, as well as the ways in which it may contribute to further traumatization and revictimization of victims. The discussions that follow shed some light on many of these issues.


Today, memorials occupy a permanent place in the landscape of many nations.  By definition, memorials have been described as spaces "invested with meaning" that are set aside to remember (Doka 2003, 186).  In devising a definition of the term "memorial," researchers have been keen on noting that care must be taken to avoid incorrectly using the term "memorial" in place of the term "monument" (Gough 2002).  According to Gough (2002), what differentiates the two terms is the intent of preserving and remembering that is accompanied with memorializing; while monuments usually project celebratory sentiments.  

As a process, memorializing is marked by activities and actions done to mourn and remember people, places and things of importance in society.  As Foot et al. (2006, 72) note, these practices provide the opportunity for people to "celebrate the lives of those who died, to mourn their passing, and to inscribe memories of the deceased in the public consciousness."

In terms of research, it should be noted that most of the academic literature on memorialization and remembrance largely focuses on the positive impact of memorializing events for individuals that have been victimized.  For the most part, the academic literature does not empirically examine the wider social effect that memorializing can have on social attitudes or on public policy.  However, there is some evidence that memorialization can also have negative social consequences.  For instance, as social psychologists have demonstrated, remembering the historical victimization of one’s own social group makes an individual less concerned by the harmful actions their own group may inflict on others (Wohl and Branscombe 2008).  This is particularly true for those social groups identified as being responsible for the victimization.

Irrespective of the extent of research focused specifically on the negative and positive effects of memorializing, a significant proportion of the general literature on memorials and memorialization has been sociologically and psychologically based.  From the psychological perspective, memorials have been examined in relation to peoples’ memories and as mechanisms for coping with trauma.  For example, one body of research casts memorialization as a method used by people to cope with the feelings of guilt and responsibility that is sometimes associated with surviving traumatic events (Oliner 2006).  Described as externalization, this necessary process uses memorials to facilitate the use of "objects in external reality" to overcome internal conflicts that plague peoples’ conscious after traumatic events (Oliner 2006, 884).  From the sociological perspective, research on memorials is varied and covers a wide range of topics such as the meanings attached to memorials, and the basic functions of memorials (Zitoun 2004; Low 2004).  For example Zitoun (2004), who deconstructs the meaning of memorials, asserts that memorials have four primary functions in society. First, they are used to reinforce notions of trust in the nation-state; second, memorials establish avenues through which people can interact with others; third, they function as sites of mourning; and lastly, they provide opportunities of learning. In general, it is important to note that although the scope of research on memorials and memorializing is wide and diverse, research in the area has only recently begun to incorporate the experiences of the victims of terrorism into this particular discourse.

As a relatively recent research endeavour, there is little doubt that memorializing the victims of terrorism is a complex process. The scarce research that does exist in the area depicts the process of memorialization as highly contentious. First, research highlights that a contributing factor to the complexity of the memorialization process is the presence of numerous stakeholders (Britton 2007; Couch et al. 2008). Some of the stakeholders involved in one way or another in the memorialization process are victims, victims’ families, victims’ associations, the public, religious organizations and community groups/associations. In addition, city officials, politicians and various governmental units at many levels of government, such as the federal, provincial and municipal governments also serve as critical stakeholders involved in the memorialization process.   Amid the extensive presence of numerous stakeholders in the memorialization process, the literature overwhelmingly stresses the critical role victims and victims’ families can and should play regarding the development of memorials honouring the lives lost to acts of terrorism (Britton 2007; Berman 2002; Hoffman and Kasupski 2007).  However, research shows that victims and victims’ families are often faced with competing influences from other groups involved in the memorialization process (Britton 2007). In her analysis of commemorative activities in the United States, Britton highlights the various roles stakeholders may play in the commemorative process. According to Britton (2007), stakeholders have various levels of influence and control over the memorialization process.  Of note are the "gatekeepers," whom the author asserts are the public agents and government officials focused on regulating the "production and reception" of memorials (Britton 2007).  In many instances, the outcomes of these forms of control over the memorialization process are evident in the various narratives that become associated with particular memorial events. As such, deconstructing the ways narratives feature in the memorial process may provide an opportunity to identify how and for what purposes control is exercised and may also signify the role, or lack thereof, victims and victims’ families play in the memorialization process.

Citing Schwartz (1998) and Langer (1998), Damphouse et al. (2003, 6) identify narratives as stories that are used  to (in)directly influence the collective support needed to successfully establish memorials for tragic events. More precisely, the authors assert that such narratives normally convey major or minor messages regarding the event in question. Major narratives include progressive and redemptive themes, while minor narratives are those represented primarily through dogmatic, toxic (narratives focused on the pain associated with remembering) and patriotic themes (Damphouse et al. 2003).  Other research has focused on the ways in which politics feature in the production and presentation of narratives.  According to some scholars, memorials related to terrorism and other hostile activities are often reflective of nation and state based narratives regarding war and security (Shay 2005; Doss 2008). For example, Doss (2008) stipulates that American memorials developed to preserve memory following a terrorist event primarily function by transforming the lives lost through acts of terrorism into symbols of American patriotism and heroism. For Doss, painting an image of American courage and heroism with the experiences of victims of terrorist events actually undermines authentic acts of individual heroism while simultaneously projecting an image of the US as blameless, and victims of terrorism as highly patriotic citizens. What is being called into consideration here is the fact that particular state narratives regarding terrorist memorials are open to interpretation at both the local and international levels. As such, care must be taken to address the underlying implications of memorial narratives from particular, as well as global contexts.

Doss’ (2008) ideas are also reflected in the debates that emerged immediately following an early proposal to develop a museum - The International Freedom Center (IFC) - to commemorate the events and victims of 9/11. According to the Center’s developers, the forthcoming centre would serve as a place to celebrate American ideals and visions of freedom (Hoskins 2007). However, the proposal was met with opposition from victims’ families who argued that the museum was in actuality, an avenue to further American political ideologies while indirectly displacing the memory of the victims.  This sentiment speaks to the argument that too often, the varied narratives of victims, victims’ families and groups are often obscured by more dominant memorial discourses, namely government and media dominated narratives (Low 2004).

Another issue associated with memorial narratives are the multiple meanings regarding terrorism that emerge in their production. For example, research shows that meanings about "victim" and "victimhood" sometimes become critical areas where memorialization is concerned. In their research on the commemoration of the Northern Ireland Troubles,[3] Graham and Whelan (2007) argue that contested meanings of victimhood can often emerge as people struggle to differentiate amongst the various kinds of victims (i.e. victims of state violence versus victims of terrorist actions).  The authors stipulate that as a result of this, a "hierarchy of victimhood" becomes prevalent in the memorialization process thereby perpetuating the fragmentation of consensus regarding the establishment of memorials, especially where diverse groups are involved (2007, 483).  Hite (2007) presents a similar case regarding the memorialization of victims of terrorism in Peru. In this example, some individuals were calling for a national terrorism memorial to also acknowledge the supposed and suspected perpetrators of terrorist events in Peru. For the opponents of this position, such forms of recognition at the memorial site undermined the experiences of the victims and their loved ones and hence, should not have been suggested in the first place. Overall, the studies discussed above illustrate the significance in deconstructing the ways narratives feature within memorial processes, and stress the need to address such issues in the planning process of prospective memorials for the victims of terrorism.

  • [1] Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 83.01.
  • [2] For instance, the Air India bombings took place near Ireland and about 90% of the 307 killed were Canadian, the World Trade Centre attack took place in New York and about 1% of the 2,750 killed were Canadian, and in the Bali night club bombings about 1% of the 202 killed were Canadian.  Yet how nationality was highlighted and impacted upon the memorialization of victims was very different in all three cases.
  • [3] "The Troubles" refers to a period of violent conflict between various political organizations and groups in Northern Ireland from approximately 1960 to 1996.

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