There was a point, around the middle of the month, where I was legitimately worried I’d have to struggle to come up with news to recap. Given the last week, I preferred my first problem. I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.
Terror, we are told, came to Canada this month in two separate attacks on military personnel within a single 48 hour period. And without diminishing the brutality of the first incident – when a schizophrenic adult convert to Islam deliberately drove a car into an off-duty officer in rural Quebec – it was the Ottawa attack that really put the nation on edge. On the morning of October 22nd, a man wielding a lever-action rifle murdered Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, an honour guard at the national War Memorial, before storming Parliament Hill to bring violence to the seat of political power in Canada. As gunshots rang out in the Hall of Honour, NDP and Conservative MPs barricaded themselves in their caucus rooms and sharpened makeshift spears out of flagpoles. Then, in one of the most surreal moments in Canadian history, the rampage was brought to a dramatic close when Parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers – presumably still clad in his regal black robes – shot and killed the intruder while spin-diving out from around a pillar near the Library of Parliament. It would be unbelievable had it not literally happened.
But as the dust settled at the end of the day, the really unsettling questions began: how did this happen? And, maybe more importantly, how do we respond?
One way not to respond is with kneejerk racism or Islamophobia. When a mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta was defaced with racist graffiti the day after the attacks, the whole town mobilized to clean up the damage and paper over xenophobic slurs with a message of tolerance. This is a beautiful scene. Touching, sappy responses are definitely encouraged, and have not been in short supply – although, as much as I appreciate the symbolism of the gesture, it was still extremely awkward to watch Stephen Harper hug Justin Trudeau. The cynic in me wonders if it’ll show up in future CPC attack ads as proof that Trudeau is a hug-a-thug Liberal.
Another way not to respond is with hysterical handwringing about how Canada has “lost its innocence.” That statement is false even without making the classic critic’s complaint that the Canadian state has its own bloodied hands. Terrorism in Canada is fortunately rare, but not unheard-of. Moncton cop-killer Justin Bourque is being sentenced as I write this. The Toronto 18 were convicted of plotting to behead the Prime Minister in 2006, and the Air India Bombing, Montreal Massacre, and FLQ Crisis are other incidents that spring to mind. Political violence is not even a total stranger to Ottawa – D’Arcy McGee, one of the ‘Fathers of Confederation’, was shot to death in 1868 by a militant Irish republican. More recently, in 1984, a lone gunman walked into Quebec’s National Assembly and killed three people before he too was stopped by a Sergeant-at-Arms. I’m not trying to diminish the gravity of recent events, but a little historical perspective might bring its real impact into better focus. For better and for worse, there is nothing new under the sun.
Most likely, this will serve as a backdrop to an expansion of state policing powers that was already in motion before the shooting. We can anticipate new legislation to give CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, new powers of surveillance and arrest – and, apparently, the right to break the law in the interests of “national security.” Plans are also in the works to criminalize any overtly radical online speech, so this might be a good time to stop ironically commenting “same” on ISIS Youtube videos (and, more cynically, to stop sharing links about Greenpeace and/or Idle No More on Facebook). It’s difficult to know how much this will ultimately curtail domestic terrorism. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, for instance, was not on a government watch-list before the Ottawa attack, and the jury’s still out on whether trading liberty for security is all that good of a deal.
But if you want my honest opinion, I think the idea that Canada was hit by organized terrorism orchestrated by ISIS is a bit of a stretch. No doubt a poisonous political theology factored into these attacks, but it’s doubtful it was part of an insidious international plot and downright dubious that it’s a direct outgrowth of Islam. These were two deeply troubled young men, with histories of mental illness, petty crime, and drug abuse, who saw a promise of personal transcendence in a spectacular orgy of violence. They are not alone in this. In Canada today, ISIS’ macho jihadism may be the poison of choice, but in other times and political contexts that void has been filled by anti-police libertarianism, Bolshevism, Quebec separatism, messianic Catholicism, and even American liberalism. The siren song of violence is always lurking as a personal nuclear option, an emergency exit from the suffocation of Self, and in a perfect storm of personal problems and social failures and geopolitical crisis, that psychic bomb can go off.
There is, of course, no direct link between mental illness and violence – political or otherwise. But neither was this a straightforward case where a battle between good and evil in the War on Terror was fought on Canadian soil. At the risk of contradicting our Prime Minister in this most patriotic of moments, the Ottawa shooting is not actually why we are in Iraq right now. Charging Parliament Hill with a 120-year-old bush rifle is less a concerted blow to the heart of Canadian democracy than it is a cosmic cry for help. And it’d be a damn shame if something so brutally stupid “changed everything” about what this country – on that cool autumn day spent scrubbing hate speech off a mosque – has proved that it can be.