By Trevor Busch
The series of events that culminated in a frightening attack on Parliament in Ottawa last week should send shockwaves reverberating through the corridors of the Centre Block, not unlike the echoing crescendo of gunfire that ended the life of a homegrown would-be terrorist.
In the short term, we will probably see more powers handed to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP, nominally to help them better defend the national security of Canada against enemies both foreign and domestic. Long the refrain of intelligence services the world over, blanket powers in the name of “national security” have often been responsible for much more than keeping people safe.
For those who really need their dose of paranoia, talk of extending new powers to cover things like “preventative arrest” tend to send shivers down the spines of us familiar with the works of George Orwell. Arresting someone for a crime they might commit — thoughtcrime — could have us treading down an ugly garden path.
To be fair, the very bills that were contemplating expansion of powers to our intelligence community were set to be introduced and debated that very day in Ottawa. It’s just that somehow I think there will be less debate on the subject from the Opposition — in light of recent events — than there might well have been. And it is a subject certainly worthy of further debate.
In the long term, serious questions will have to be asked about what appears to have been a serious breakdown of security surrounding Parliament on the day in question. How was an armed gunman able to come within mere metres of our prime minister and cabinet?
Why was there not a heightened security environment on Parliament Hill, in light of warnings signs in Quebec and even from our own security establishment?
And what might have happened if this individual had been a suicide bomber? It would not be stretch to suggest an explosion that close to the prime minister and cabinet would not have taken a heavy toll in lives on the present leadership of our country. Answers to those questions have so far been slow in forthcoming from the stone wall of the Harper regime.
Canada has had its fair share of security problems in the recent past. Although last week’s terrifying events seemed to be without precedent, that — strictly speaking — isn’t the whole truth.
In April 1982, Turkish envoy Atilla Altikat was shot and killed by a gunman while driving to work in Ottawa. In April 1989, an armed Lebanese-Canadian man hijacked a Greyhound bus and drove it to Parliament Hill, sparking an eight-hour hostage taking that ended with no casualties. In 1997 a distraught man stopped just short of crashing a Jeep into the doors of the Centre Block after driving up the steps. In December 2002, a grenade was delivered to the Prime Minister’s office, and in December 2009, Greenpeace demonstrators climbed to the top of two Parliament buildings and unfurled banners protesting the oilsands. In 2006, the so-called Toronto 18 terror group plotted to blow up the Toronto Stock Exchange, a military base and storm the Parliament buildings in an attempt to behead the Prime Minister. Eleven jihadists were later convicted. Let’s just say people have had a habit of piercing the thin blue line on Parliament Hill in the past few decades.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Elsewhere in Ottawa past prime ministers haven’t been entirely safe. In November 1995, an armed intruder slipped through a bedroom door at 24 Sussex Drive while Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife were sleeping. Although many Canadians probably laugh this incident off today — Chretien purportedly seized a soapstone carving and attempted to defend himself — it remains a monumental security failure on the part of the RCMP detail assigned to protect our head of government.
And in an entirely more tragic incident in 1984, disgruntled ex-soldier Denis Lortie stormed the Quebec National Assembly and opened fire with several automatic firearms, killing three government employees and wounding 13 others. Outside of Canada, a recent security breach at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in which shots fired into the presidential residence were not discovered by the Secret Service until days later has led to significant security fallout in Washington, D.C.
This columnist will not choose to speculate on the motives of the individual responsible for this violation of Canada’s governmental institutions and symbols of freedom, but he will not dispute his labeling as a terrorist, be he home-grown or not. The object of terror is terror — and this attack certainly struck fear into the hearts and minds of many Canadians.
While terror spreads fear, these kinds of acts will not blunt the will of Canadians or their government to root out those who breed these kinds of sentiments in others, or promote the cause of brutish absolutism in the name of faith. That at least is clear — intimidation will not be an effective tactic against a progressive society when confronted by challenges from extremists. To do less would advertise our weakness, and weakness is something we dare not show in the face of extremism.
This is what amounts to a loss of our insular innocence for Canadians. We have not had our 9/11 like our American cousins, our 7/7 like our British antecedents. Although those events certainly impacted us, they weren’t outside our front door. And while last week’s events in Ottawa are on a far less tragic scale, they still struck deep blows against some of the institutions we hold most dear — our defence of freedom and our dedication to democracy and the rule of law. Inhabiting the northern reaches of shield-shaped North America, protected on all sides by vast oceans, it is easy for Canadians to sometimes forget the world they inhabit as a brother among brothers is not as safe as it might seem. If that realization comes at the cost of a few lives rather than hundreds, it might be a price worth paying.
It appears the lone gunman theory with regard to our would-be assassin is gaining weight, with no confirmed ties or links being made to organized Islamist extremism, it is apparent that our terrorist worked alone. While us in the media may cry foul about the level and nature of a security breach, it would be wrong to blame CSIS or the RCMP for not preventing the act before it occurred. That would be the same as preventing murders before they occurred, or bank robberies. The “single lone nut” theory strikes again. Only in this case, it appears to be the most plausible explanation. At least there’s no magic bullet theories that have emerged.
Despite the subject matter, I can’t resist walking on the lighter side for moment. I found it interesting, for instance, that the most dynamic footage of the shooting inside Parliament was shot — not by our vaunted broadcast journalists — by a lowly newspaper reporter with a shaky cellphone for the Globe and Mail. Where were the courageous and hard-hitting reporters of the CBC, CTV, Global? Probably diving for the nearest hardwood table. And people say newspapers are dying.
And of course, armed gunman or not, partisan politics dies hard on Parliament Hill. As terror stalked the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block, Conservatives on the left and the NDP on the right were busy barricading their own caucus rooms with whatever was available. While the less amicable among us might simply consider that our politicians were finally earning their pay, I found it interesting that the Conservatives barricaded their doors with chairs, and the NDP used tables. Psychologists will probably be debating the ideological significance of that one for decades.
And then one wonders, of course, if there exists such a thing as lockdown boredom. When a gunman strikes and you’re cooped up in an office for 12 or 14 hours with limited WiFi, and perhaps no access to the facilities? We’re talking one smelly, scary game of makeshift gin rummy perhaps gone terribly wrong.
It’s easy to make light of things. It proves we are all still human beings. From the depths of tragedy, we can still learn from our mistakes. To learn nothing from last week’s events would be the real tragedy.