10:51, February 13 117 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-13 10:51:06
Forty years for a mosque killer, when murderers of white victims get 75?

Two years ago Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a Quebec City mosque and opened fire on men at prayer, killing six, injuring 19 and ensuring that 17 children would grow up without their fathers. Known to Quebec feminist and refugee support groups as an internet troll, Bissonnette’s search history suggested he had been influenced by racist, misogynistic shooters such as Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger and Marc Lépine. After the attack Bissonnette told a social worker he regretted not having killed more people.

In court, he pleaded guilty and expressed remorse. Last Friday, in an unusual judgment, Bissonnette was sentenced to life in prison, with 40 years before he is eligible for parole.

The massacre sparked intense and continuing debate about Islamophobia in Quebec public life, and these tensions played out in the trial. The prosecution, seeking six consecutive life sentences totalling 150 years before he was eligible for parole, framed the case as a violent hate crime. The defence, seeking parole eligibility after 25 years, said Bissonnette was a mentally unstable victim of school bullying, who was afraid that the mosque housed terrorists who might hurt his family.

When the sentence was delivered, Quebec’s Muslim community reacted with dismay. Saïd El-Amari, who was wounded during the shooting, said: “Today, I feel a Muslim Canadian citizen is worth less than another citizen.” He pointed out that in 40 years’ time many people – including the victims’ children – will relive the trauma of the massacre.

Bisonnette’s parents, who were commended by the judge for their bravery during the trial, said the sentence was the harshest handed down in Quebec since the abolition of the death penalty. For the Bissonnettes, the route to avoiding such violence, “is not to lock someone up for ever, but rather try to better understand and prevent bullying”.

If there is confusion as to whether the judgment is lenient or harsh, it is because Canada is still figuring out how to sentence mass murderers. In 2011 Stephen Harper’s conservative government amended the criminal code, allowing judges to consecutively apply parole ineligibility periods for multiple crimes. This ability to “stack” parole ineligibilities effectively empowered judges to condemn some criminals to die in prison. Critics argue that the new law is cruel, does nothing to prevent mass killings and is incompatible with a commitment to rehabilitation.

Bissonnette’s sentence is oriented towards the lenient end of this new terrain. So is that of Bruce McArthur, who was also sentenced last Friday. The Toronto serial killer, who murdered eight gay and bisexual men, mostly immigrants of colour, got life with 25 years before eligibility for parole.

Meanwhile, Justin Bourque, in a rightwing attack with similar motivations to Bissonnette’s, killed three white RCMP officers in 2014 and was sentenced to life with 75 years before chance of parole. Multiple murderers Dellen Millard, Derek Saretzky and Douglas Garland received the same 75-year parole restriction. All of these men will die in prison. All of their victims were white.

An outlier to this pattern is the sentence of Paul Ostamas, an indigenous man who has a longstanding diagnosis of schizophrenia. Ostamas also received the harshest sentence for his murder of three indigenous homeless men.

Overall, these discrepancies in sentencing seem to support the Muslim community’s perception of undue lenience towards Bissonnette, and of immigrant lives, lives of colour, and Muslim lives being valued less than white lives. Clearly, we need some national guidelines on how to stack parole ineligibilities.

What’s less clear is how to find the balance between punishment and forgiveness for such terrible crimes. In drawing attention to the contexts of these discrepancies in sentencing, I’m supporting neither a harsher nor more lenient sentence for Bissonnette. Like many, I simultaneously believe that rehabilitation should be at the heart of a criminal justice system and also that what Bissonnette did is unforgiveable.

I don’t pretend to know how to honour the lives lost and also the hope that people who commit inhuman acts can change. I suspect that our answers to this question will often reflect our personal feelings of proximity to perpetrators or victims – not only as family, but also as members of a community, nation, religion or race.

With this in mind, I try to imagine that a troubled young Muslim man, bullied at school and radicalised by online propaganda, walked into a hockey game, killed six white Canadians and shot 19 more. I try to imagine his teacher taking the stand at his trial and testifying that the killer was a victim too. I try to imagine his parents telling a sympathetic press that a 40-year sentence was too harsh, that their son deserved a second chance. But I can’t imagine these things. The script doesn’t flip.

Bissonette’s parents told the media: “Alexandre is not a monster.” And I agree: he’s just a man who intentionally caused immeasurable pain.

But I wonder, who are these imagined monsters with whom Bissonnette will implicitly be compared? What colour skin do they have? Where do they pray? Every criminal should have their humanity recognised; all victims’ lives should be equally valued under the law. But Bissonnette’s trial shows that race and religion affect which criminals we’re willing to humanise and which murders we’re willing to forgive. Paying careful attention to these dynamics might help to heal a province still struggling to understand Bissonnette’s Islamophobic hate and violence.

Emer O’Toole is associate professor of Irish performance studies at Concordia University, Canada

Topics