Review: Not What They Had In Mind

Industry Canada in 1995 published a landmark report on the internet. It envisioned a road of pencil-thin cable – they actually called it an “information superhighway” – with traffic cops and off-ramps, and even a toll plaza. One cabinet minister proposed a tax on all internet transactions.

Wrong again. No one anticipated an unregulated global web so extensive a faraway terrorist group named ISIS would use electronic propaganda to enlist Canadian mercenaries.

“The pleasure centre of the brain that’s stimulated by the internet is the same as the one stimulated by drugs,” writes Mark Bourrie in The Killing Game; “We have developed the greatest communication systems the world has ever seen and hooked almost everyone in the world to them.”

Bourrie is an accomplished author. The Killing Game explores the mentality of ISIS volunteers, and the seductiveness and intimacy of the internet that connects conspiracy theorists. “People of all ages now live in a media matrix that engulfs and entraps them,” Bourrie writes.

“For many of us, backing away from computer-transmitted messaging is simply too difficult. New media provides an addictive level of brain stimulus. It kills time for the bored. It makes the unimportant seem important and connects individuals into communities that are very real.”

Bourrie correctly notes the internet does not make terrorists any more than The Daily Worker made a murderer of Lee Harvey Oswald; nor can the medium be regulated; nor is it so hypnotic it transforms well-adjusted teenagers into a social menace. Bourrie counts 150 Canadian ISIS volunteers, tops. By comparison 13,000 people signed an electronic Commons petition to ban the sale of cat fur.

And yet –

“This is the first generation of young people to be raised with computers and smart phones integrated into their lives and minds,” says The Killing Game. “They have been given control over devices that can instantaneously bring them information, pornography, companionship, laughter and fantasy.”

“So much of ISIS’s war-porn propaganda is directed at the same people targeted by the Canadian army: bored young people who aren’t engaged by the consumer ethos of their own society and who feel that adventure is passing them by,” Bourrie writes. “They want to step into the video games that have become so important to them and be the heroes that they play on the small screen. As Abu Sumayyah al-Britany, a British fighter with ISIS, posted on Twitter, war is the ultimate in virtual reality.”

Bourrie profiles perhaps the best-known Canadian mercenary, John Maguire of Kemptville, Ont., an unhappy son of divorced parents. A “startling number” of ISIS volunteers suffered family break-up, he writes.

Maguire quit the University of Ottawa to become a terrorist. “Evil is very prominent in Canadian culture,” Maguire wrote on his Facebook page. “Homosexuality, fornication and adultery are generally accepted; drugs and alcohol are easily accessible and widely accepted as being ‘normal’; women and men are often not properly covered; music is widespread in public places.”

Maguire was reportedly killed in a gunfight in 2015. “One of the striking similarities between Westerners who have gone to fight for ISIS is the shortness of their lifespan in combat,” Bourrie observes.

The Killing Game is a captivating examination not merely of the weak-minded among us who are drawn to violence, but the electronic tools that get them there. After decades with the internet, Canada still struggles with its potential “to upgrade the education system,” as playwright John Gray wrote in 1994; “to streamline medical services; overcome geographic isolation; rejuvenate the electoral system; eliminate bureaucratic duplication and waste.”

“Imagine the world’s first electronic country – an innovative middle power where education spans a lifetime, where it is possible to develop and to communicate an original thought, any time, at the speed of light,” wrote Gray, an original member of the Information Superhighway Advisory Council. “Sounds tantalizing, implausible. Utopian. So did the railroad.”

By Holly Doan

The Killing Game: Martyrdom, Murder and the Lure of ISIS, by Mark Bourrie; Harper Collins Canada; 288 pages; ISBN 9781-4434-47010; $32.99

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