The heart of Canada’s democracy has been invaded and violated. Political violence is hardly unknown to Canada, but even in the dark days of the War Measures Act during another October 44 years ago Parliament itself remained untouched. Now the ring of gunfire in its marbled corridors, and the bloodstains on the National War Memorial nearby, have brought the reality of such conflict to the very centre of our political system.
Canadians will mourn Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the young soldier from Hamilton who tragically lost his life standing guard at the war memorial, of all places. They will give thanks that no one else but the gunman who attacked Parliament on Wednesday was killed. And they will quite rightly hail those who stopped him, led by Kevin Vickers, the parliamentary sergeant-at-arms who shot the attacker dead before he could harm anyone else.
The events of Wednesday – “these despicable attacks,” as Prime Minister Stephen Harper described them late in the evening – will echo for a long time in our public life, in ways we cannot entirely foresee in the heat of the moment. But we do know that this is no time for panic. Sadly, the capital of a major democracy is bound to be the scene of violence from time to time, and the surprise is that until Wednesday Ottawa had been remarkably free of such acts.
Harper made it plain that, in the wake of Wednesday’s attack, “Canada will not be intimidated.” That is entirely right; any democracy worth the name must protect above all the place where its representatives come together to debate and decide our collective course.
At the same time, there is no need to overreact and wrap Parliament Hill in new and unnecessary layers of security. There are no fences cutting off our seat of government from the people, nor should there be. Security must be reviewed, but carefully. Canada must remain true to its open, democratic values – especially in the face of such an attack.
Neither is this a time to duck difficult questions. Many essential facts about the attack are still unknown – in particular what exactly motivated the gunman, identified as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, originally from Quebec. But in the wake of that and the earlier fatal attack this week on a soldier in Quebec, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, by a Canadian convert to radical Islamist ideas, we urgently need answers to a host of questions:
• Was there any link between Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, the man who murdered the soldier in Quebec? On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine that two attacks on soldiers in three days can be mere coincidence. In his brief speech to the nation, Harper himself linked them together, and indeed linked them to Canada’s involvement in the U.S.-led campaign against the extremist ISIS group in Iraq and Syria.
• Are we dealing with troubled individuals who have “self-radicalized” with Islamist ideology on their own, so-called lone wolves? Or are they part of a network? And if they are part of a wider organization, what might others be planning?
• Was Zehaf-Bibeau known to the security services, as some reports on Wednesday suggested? Was he among the 90 or so individuals that the RCMP says it has been keeping under surveillance in connection with radical jihadist groups? According to some reports, he was already on their radar screen and may have had his passport seized. So why wasn’t he stopped before he acted?
• What went wrong with how the RCMP handled Couture-Rouleau? Certainly they were well aware of him and his activities. In July they prevented him from getting on a plane to Turkey, believing he was on his way to join ISIS in Iraq or Syria. And RCMP officers met with him as recently as Oct. 9 to discuss his radical activities. Yet they concluded there was nothing concrete to indicate he was planning an actual attack. What did they miss?
• What warnings, if any, did the security services have of an impending attack? Before Wednesday there were conflicting reports that there had been warnings of an attack in Canada. Were there such indications of a jihadist threat? What’s the truth?
• What went wrong with Parliament’s security screen that allowed a man wielding a long gun (a rifle or shotgun) to first fire the fatal shots at the cenotaph and then run across the wide lawn in front of Parliament, burst through the checkpoint at the entrance, and penetrate deeply into the building?
Parliament Hill is patrolled by security officers and the guards at the entrance of the building are armed. Yet it took the sergeant-at-arms himself to put down the intruder with his own weapon. Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms, is a highly respected RCMP veteran who has earned the gratitude of MPs for personally ending the threat to their lives. But the fact remains that he is in charge of security in and around Parliament, and must face pointed questions about why that system broke down.
It will be difficult in the coming days and months to find the proper balance between a heightened concern for security and the equally important need to cherish our open system and civil liberties. That will become even tougher if it is confirmed that both both Rouleau-Martin and Zehaf-Bibeau were driven by the same twisted jihadist ideology, and even more so if it turns out that the attacks in Quebec and Ottawa were coordinated.
Canadians will be justifiably worried and angry if that is the case. It will up to the politicians – the very ones who were put under personal threat on Wednesday – to rise above their usual partisan games and strike the right notes of firmness and restraint.