The Canadian Parliament Attack and its Aftermath

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.

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