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Expressing dissent with physical threats—are we breeding a terrorist civilization?


By Laura Bohnert

On May 24, 2015, Alberta voted for change. In an election that expected the NDP to take opposition to a PC government, Alberta voted in the first NDP government in the province’s history—and the first non- Conservative premier since 1971. However, it wouldn’t be long for the then-shiny-and-new premier to start facing controversy, and since her election, Rachel Notley has broken records in becoming the most threatened premier of Alberta.

Of course, it isn’t unheard of for Alberta premiers to receive threats. Between 2003 and 2015, 55 threats were reportedly made against the various Alberta premiers. What is surprising is the number that have been directed towards Alberta’s latest Premier. Of those 55 threats, 19 were aimed at Rachel Notley, and they were all made between August 2015 and December 2015.

What kinds of threats are we talking about? Any potential event or act, whether deliberate or accidental, that could cause potential injury. The majority of the threats directed towards Rachel Notley were considered low level threats—that is, threats that have the capability or intent of being carried out by an individual or group, but which are unlikely to occur. Three of the threats, however, prompted police intervention.

Why is Notley inspiring such negative attention? While the carbon tax isn’t exactly the most popular of all government implementations, Notley may not have to take the increase in recent threats quite so personally. It may actually have more to do with increases in the presence and availability of social media.

Since the start of 2016, the way these threats could be reviewed and tracked was forced to change as a result of increased activity on social media, and since then, the threats against Notley have increased exponentially. In 2016 alone, 412 cases of “inappropriate contact and communication” (ICC) were reported to involve Notley, and 26 of those were sent to police to be followed up.

Controversial policies may, of course, be an inciting factor, but there is a much more significant link between increasing social media and increasing numbers of threats.

Social media does, after all, create a solid foundation for those kinds of expressions of dissent. It has a seemingly anonymous interface that erases the confrontation and accountability that would otherwise be built into comments and even actions of a threatening, hostile, or exclusionist nature. It also gives like-minded individuals a space to convene to express common dissent and garner support for otherwise inappropriate solutions to that dissent.

In other words, the recent increase in threats may just be a political version of cyberbullying.

However, whether the threats have been severe in nature or not, the increase in online expressions of this nature—from cyberbullying to assassination threats—is a worrisome one. It suggests that physical violence is becoming a valid solution for political dissent—and isn’t that the spark that fuels actual, group-supported acts of violence? Like school shootings? Attacks on gay nightclubs? Or the Mosque attack in Quebec City? Isn’t that the definition of terrorism itself? And while we are so concerned about whether or not Trump is right about the need for his wall, shouldn’t we be looking more closely at what is breeding terrorist thoughts and actions within our own, non-otherable country?

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