Quebec City Mosque Shooting: Reflections on Whether the Shooter's Sentence Is Fair

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On the evening of January 29, 2017, 6 men lost their lives and another 19 sustained life-threatening injuries moments after concluding their evening prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, Canada. This tragedy was a consequence of a violent terrorist attack whereby Alexandre Bissonnette, a well-educated man in his late twenties of who many close to him say was born to model parents, opened fire on a mosque reportedly packed with 53 innocent people. The perpetrator was charged with 6 counts of first-degree murder and 5 of attempted murder, but no charges of terrorism due to Canadian Criminal Code’s definition of such specifying collaboration with a terrorist group. After eventually pleading guilty to all charges, Bissonnette was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole for at least 40 years (Al Jazeera, 2017).

Despite what might seem like a more than fair sentencing to Bissonnette from a neutral standpoint, people close to him such as Lucie Cote, his first witness of defense and former teacher, said that he was introverted, bullied mercilessly, and “developed reflexes of nervousness and fear and did not defend himself” in his youth. Furthermore, the psychologist who evaluated him in court said that he had been suffering with mental illness leading up to the attack, expressing a simple desire to kill. As a matter of fact, the gunman claimed to have initially planned to open fire in a mall, but turned his attention to the mosque to target the Muslim refugees in the area which he perceived as a threat (Marin, 2018). Bissonnette’s parents said that this ‘very severe sentence’ left no room for rehabilitation (Enos, 2019), bringing up the question of whether or not life imprisonment really is justifiable given the perpetrator’s history. We don’t know for a fact whether or not Bissonnette really had the luxury of free will when making this decision, so for him and other potential offenders of a similar social context, is severe punishment the best way to prevent it? This concept can be explored through the two major criminological schools of thought, classical and positivist, and how they’ve evolved to date.

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The classical school of criminology is a criminological perspective built on the concept that potential criminals, “as rational beings capable of free will” (Cornish et al., 1986), will refrain from committing a crime if they were faced with the certainty of punishment, swiftness of justice, and fair penalties proportionate to the severity of social harm done (Beccaria, 1995). Built on the assumption that Bissonnette was acting on his own free will, this sentence is most definitely justifiable. He devastated an entire community that now must mourn their lost ones, and on top of that will no longer be able to visit their preferred place of worship whilst being comfortable that a tragedy of this magnitude may never strike again. Judging from the social impact of this crime, one could argue that lifetime in a correctional institution may not even be enough, let alone the possibility of parole in 40 years. Before as recently as the 1970’s, more severe punishments would’ve been considered for charges of Bissonnette’s scale, but as the Canadian Criminal Justice System became more progressive, they are no longer considered an option (Cowper, 2012).

Given this, as the CCJS developed to be more considering of the perpetrators’ circumstances, the classical school of criminology adapted. This evolution presents itself in the form of the neoclassical school of criminology. This perspective exercises the idea that, whilst endorsing the core ideas of the classical school, some offenders should be treated more leniently given situations whereby they did not necessarily have the option of exercising their own free will (Winterdyk, 2016). In light of Alexandre Bissonnette’s speculated mental illness, it is important to take into consideration that he might not have had the same ability of decision-making that another would have. Because of his experiences being bullied at a young age, the idea of victimization may have been cemented into his evaluation of non-threatening situations. As he stated himself, the attack was a consequence of his concern over refugee conflicts in Europe, leading him to them as a threat to him and his loved ones (Leyland, 2018). Regardless of how flawed this perception might be, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the environment in which he grew up in may have forced him into thinking that way. However, it cannot be guaranteed that he won’t make a mistake like this again, so keeping him in a correctional facility may be the best punishment Bissonnette can be offered in this situation.

Similar to the neoclassical school, the positivist school of criminology stresses the significance of one’s inability to act on his or her own free will when committing a crime. More explicitly, the positivist thought uses the scientific method to examine behavior and reasoning (McShane, 2013). As opposed to the classical method of punishment, it emphasizes rehabilitation. Recognized as the father of modern criminology, Cesare Lombroso adopted this ideology on the basis of biological determinism: a condition whereby one may be unable to live within societal norms as a consequence of inability to act on free will (Lombroso, 2006). As aforementioned, Bissonnette was an introvert who suffered from both physical and psychological abuse on a severe level as a student, potentially pertaining to his mental illness and the crime that followed. With his parents’ argument that his life sentence gave him no hope of rehabilitation, it is possible that a positivist approach may indeed be more beneficial to the perpetrator as well as to society. He could revisit his community accountable for the great loss he has caused and pay his debt by retiring the thoughts that caused so much pain to his community in the first place.

Like the classical approach, the positivist approach has also changed to date as the study of crime as a whole has. The neopositivist school of criminology stresses more on the possibility of reintegrating criminals into society as functioning members of the system with hope and opportunity to recover from their past (Winterdyk, 2016). Although this might seem ideal for Bissonnette and his family, it is also important to consider the basis of the positivist approach in the first place: that some of the decisions they make are beyond their control. Considering how devastating the mosque shooting was, there is no doubt the community he was taken from will receive him negatively regardless of how much he has changed. If this is perceived as hostility, the perpetrator’s flawed perception of the immigrants of Quebec may be reignited. Furthermore, others that have once shared his same hatred for a certain group of people may find temporary jail time as a very minimal price to pay for their crime. Regardless of the improvement that a neopositivist approach may bring Bissonnette, it would be difficult for a community that suffered this great loss to move on knowing the man that ended their loved ones’ lives walks among them unscathed.

Although both the classical and positivist schools of criminology both present compelling points towards the fairness of the shooter’s sentencing, it is important to acknowledge the drawbacks that come to using them as decision making tools. In relation to the classical school, although the social costs of severe punishment may indeed act as effective deterrents of crime, not a strong enough correlation can be found between perception of risk and subsequent offences to validate the deterrence theory (Akers and Sellers, 2011). Moreover, rates of reoffending in Canada show that after one’s first punishment, it is very likely that a perpetrator will return to the life of crime by which he/she was taken from (Newark, 2013). As for the positivist school, the theory of determinism by which the whole perspective is built around has been challenged on many different bases, notable ones including its weakness of methodology and its failure to distinguish the roles of environment and heredity (Schafer, 1976; Cullen and Wilcox, 2010).

Because criminology is, in its nature, a very multidimensional study, it should be treated as such. Given that there will never be one ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ perspective, the best approach is one that involves multiple ones complementing one another where they fault. Integrating the classical approach with the positivist, the sentence laid on the shooter should not be reduced, as despite the life sentence handed to him if he chooses to make the effort to improve on himself and commit to it, he may be handed parole starting 40 years later. As his punishment should reflect his impact on society, these 40 years minimum reflect far less than the 6 lives he’s taken, and so it may be argued that they should be more than so.

In conclusion, this sentence gives a fair balance of hope for rehabilitation, but also a harsh sentence whereby the perpetrator can reflect on his mistake and truly come out a better individual if he sets out to do so.

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Quebec City Mosque Shooting: Reflections on Whether the Shooter’s Sentence Is Fair. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/quebec-city-mosque-shooting-reflections-on-whether-the-shooters-sentence-is-fair/
“Quebec City Mosque Shooting: Reflections on Whether the Shooter’s Sentence Is Fair.” Edubirdie, 28 Oct. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/quebec-city-mosque-shooting-reflections-on-whether-the-shooters-sentence-is-fair/
Quebec City Mosque Shooting: Reflections on Whether the Shooter’s Sentence Is Fair. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/quebec-city-mosque-shooting-reflections-on-whether-the-shooters-sentence-is-fair/> [Accessed 16 Jul. 2024].
Quebec City Mosque Shooting: Reflections on Whether the Shooter’s Sentence Is Fair [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Oct 28 [cited 2024 Jul 16]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/quebec-city-mosque-shooting-reflections-on-whether-the-shooters-sentence-is-fair/
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