On October 22nd, gunshots rang out on Parliament Hill as a single gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, attacked a group of soldiers on ceremonial duty at the National War Memorial, causing the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. The gunman then proceeded indoors at Centre Block, where at the time caucuses were still in session, and fired several more rounds before being engaged and killed by House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers.
While the scene initially unfolded like the wild script of a Call of Duty game, with the added horror and panic among a multitude of onlookers, the difficult reality began to sink in as the events left a strong impression on our national psyche. Since that day, Canada as a nation and as a culture has been left to wrestle with the highly nuanced circumstances of these events and the incidents leading up to them.
Depending on who you ask, there’s a very wide continuum on which this story resides, in which it ranges at one end from being a personal tragedy that happened to involve innocent bystanders, all the way to the other end where it is misreported as a national emergency invoking dangerous echoes of Islamophobia.
Some, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have taken the position that the Ottawa attack is strictly a terrorist attack and can only be interpreted in this context. Due to its rigidity, the approach includes a proposition to dial back specific freedoms across Canada, calls for a significant expansion to institutional and law enforcement powers, and does not effectively deal with the nuanced issues that have been pointed out about the specific circumstances unique to this case.
Others, including NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, have correctly noted that the Ottawa attack is not a terrorist act as we would normally understand it, and rather than dismiss it as one, we need to understand that what we’ve got here was very differently nuanced. Indeed, if one digs deeper to see just how far back Zehaf-Bibeau’s criminal record goes in tandem with his inability to care for himself and interact in a healthy way with society, a lot of uncomfortable questions come up about the real issue being the poor state of readiness of Canada’s mental health infrastructure. Had there been better oversight of the danger this man posed to himself and others, and had he been afforded a better standard of care, it’s likely this tragedy could have been avoided entirely.
It is unclear at this time whether the issue of drug-induced psychosis might have played a part. It’s one further possibility. The record shows Zehaf-Bibeau committed numerous incidents and crimes in the past as a result of his ongoing use of and addiction to hard drugs, including crack and PCP. Both are known for their strong effects on the human body, and given heavy or prolonged use, there exists the potential to permanently affect or alter a user’s perception of reality. On this, however, it seems we’ll probably need to wait for the investigation to continue and more information to be released.
What about the religious aspect? There really isn’t that much to say here; for what little there is, it largely falls into line with Mr. Mulcair’s reasoning. The mosque Zehaf-Bibeau had previously attended kicked him out and asked him not to return after he made numerous attempts to contravene their standards on community harmony, openness, and tolerance. Officials noted a string of incidents of anti-social behaviour, including at least one incident where Zehaf-Bibeau appropriated a key and made attempts to squat on mosque property. Based on reports, he was self-radicalized and not part of an established network or organization. He may have sought to align his toxic ideas with those of other extremist figures on the Internet, but as anyone can tell you, that’s not the same thing as working in concert or actively carrying out attacks for those figures.
Thankfully, as media reports show, we can all rest easier knowing that this was not an organized act of terrorism. It’s apparently also the consensus that Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t have any accomplices. What happened on October 22nd is inexcusable, but if anything, it’s an urgent call to all citizens of this nation to push for greater action on the ways in which we monitor, care for, and integrate the mentally ill into Canadian society and culture.
As the RCMP has noted, unhinged ‘lone wolves’ are not only incredibly unpredictable, but in a context of preventing attacks such as this one, they’re incredibly difficult to guard against. Conventional and expanded legal powers do not provide a ready or necessarily viable solution. We have laws to deal with this sort of thing already, and neither they nor additional laws would act as a deterrent or fix the biggest problems at the core of this matter. In the end, those people closest to a person who is experiencing severe detachment and disenfranchisement are the only ones in a good position to speak up, seek assistance, and do something about it — so what I mean to say is this is an issue all Canadians must be engaged on through leadership and education.
One of the most mature and well thought out responses to the October shooting was this release by Justin Trudeau.
Unfortunately, not many of us can maintain this degree of composure and courage. Presently, there is a great deal of fear-mongering and caving-to-fear going on among our politicians as concerns simmer over our response to the events of October 22nd.
In one particularly extreme and reactionary measure to this high-profile tragedy, the Harper government has proposed writing legislation that enables preventative detention. Such legislation would permit arrest and holding of any person without them having committed (or even attempted to commit) any crime. It also potentially creates an arm of the government that is not transparent or directly answerable to anyone.
If you’ve been following the exploits of our American brethren, you’ll know from their past dabbling in such things as no-fly lists, drone strikes, and extraordinary rendition that one thing consistently stands out: the creation of any government body operating outside the rule of law without oversight is something that, by its very nature, inevitably results in enormous mission creep and widespread abuse.
Is that the kind of attitude we want to take here in Canada?
Think about it: detaining someone without evidence or a crime is abhorrent to the very idea of a nation founded on laws and justice. We are, in effect, also proposing the idea of “pre-crime,” or “thought-crime,” (depending on your school of literature) which is the most troubling idea of all because it forces us to abandon our morals and institutions.
I will be dealing with this measure in its fullness during a future post, but for now, it should suffice to say that something like this merits an IMMEDIATE call to action.
Write your MP today to express disapproval for this type of legal extremism. It’s something that could erode our nation’s image on the international setting and seriously damage our institutions and cultural ethos on every level in a domestic sense. Canada’s continued success at home and abroad relies on transparency and accountability, both of which the present administration seems prepared to compromise for the sake of a false sense of security while they milk this tragedy for PR purposes.
We already have a great many laws and institutions dedicated to fighting terrorism and crime. Stand back and let them work.
We must look to the root issues behind this attack, as above, and demand that we hold our whole society to a higher standard in the future improving not only our watchfulness for one another, but also such safety nets as the infrastructure of the mental health care system — they, like so many other preventative measures, can catch a great deal of dangerous people before circumstances boil over and reach a crisis point.