The symbolism is powerful, seizing a nation by the throat.
Strike at the soldier, the uniform — for the love of God, the War Memorial — and all that is sacred, all that evokes sacrifice for this country, feels assailed.
It is frightening. But more than that it is enraging.
Soldiers are trained to fight, as Canadian troops have always done when called upon, from Afghanistan to the Balkans to global conflagrations in Europe and Africa and the Pacific.
But this soldier, clad in ceremonial uniform, had no ammunition in his rifle and no chance, no warning, against the fatal bullet that pierced his chest.
An unnamed soldier until late afternoon, guarding a memorial of profound reverence: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On a shocking day, the unnamed and the unknown represented all Canadians who wear the beret and the regimental badge and the maple leaf shoulder patch.
How wrong-headed it is, if even out of hypercaution, to strip soldiers of that uniform when they venture off-base, lest the fatigues paint a bull’s eye on their backs. Might as well strip them of their identity. Might as well strip us all of defiance against intimidation. But that’s the protocol reasoning, of course; a strange interpretation of “force protection.” Because they’re going after our soldiers now, right here on our soil, presumably heeding the call of terrorism.
The homegrown insurgent ambushing the homegrown warrior — in the shadow of the Peace Tower — to kill and be killed, wreaking havoc and tragedy in a blaze of twisted glory.
Gunfire echoing Wednesday in the stately vaulted corridors of Parliament, an unprecedented attack in the institution most emblematic of democracy in Canada. Tourists fleeing, MPs in lockdown, civil employees barricading themselves behind doors, the prime minister whisked away to safety, SWAT teams patrolling downtown Ottawa.
A lone wolf gunman acting out of his own sense of divine purpose and sociopathy? A self-radicalized acolyte of the Islamic State, which has threatened Canada — soon to join a coalition bombing campaign against Islamic State-held territory in Iraq — urging its adherents to stage attacks on domestic targets, by the gun or whatever weapon comes to hand?
On Monday it was a car, driven by a converted Muslim zealot, deliberately running down two Canadian Forces members, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and injuring the other. On Wednesday it was 24-year-old reservist Nathan Cirillo, from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Hamilton, on honour and volunteer duty, who died.
On Sept. 21, an Islamic State website issued the threat against Canada and other countries that have joined the U.S.-led coalition. And only on Tuesday we learned that there are 90 individuals on a national security “watchlist” whose movements are being monitored by the RCMP, suspected of being in high-risk thrall to Islamic and possibly looking to join the jihadist cause in Iraq and Syria.
Martin “Ahmed” Rouleau had been one of them, even interviewed by the RCMP before he mounted the attack that killed Warrant Officer Vincent in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., before he was gunned down following a police chase.
Did that plant the seed for Wednesday’s attack?
Panic and screeching sirens and a barrage of gunfire on the Hill, in the central block building of Parliament.
It might not be the Canada we recognize but it is very much the way of the world, rocked by 21st-century terrorism, whether in its exported eruptions — London, Madrid, Bali — or in lands of chronic conflict and Islamic wars, or the bloody handiwork of nationals in Western countries.
Now we know, for those who needed quantifiable proof, who remained unmoved by the colossal suffering of others, in distant places. We know the vulnerability, the victimization, the wrath. We know, perhaps never before felt quite as intensely, what Canadian troops experienced through nearly a decade of combat in Afghanistan.
This is what it looks like when the enemy attacks — in sneaky incursions (asymmetrical tactics forced upon them, the apologists will chorus), heedless of innocent civilians: a soldier bleeding out on the ground, paramedics instead of medics fighting to save a life.
The Liberals and NDP didn’t want to put Canadian troops in harm’s way when Parliament voted a couple of weeks ago on sending fighter jets to participate in the air bombing campaign against ISIS, no matter how urgent and morally defensible the engagement, ignoring Canada’s critical role in crafting Responsibility to Protect doctrine in international law.
So now the harm has come here, to us. But most particularly to those who stand on guard for us.
The questions are pointed and, thus far, unanswered. While the War Memorial is an open target — the gunman shooting Cirillo point-blank — how did the perpetrator get to the main door of the Parliament building, and inside, before apparently being brought down by the sergeant-at-arms? Was the shooter — identified first by American network TV as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — among “high-risk travellers” documented by the RCMP. Had he been on their monitoring radar? Was Canada at a heightened threat level and we weren’t told?
Most important to determine: did the shooter act alone or was he part of a like-minded cell? Which raises the question: what next? Where next?
For hour after hour, CBC anchors were loath to even speculate that the shooter was Muslim, though witnesses had described him as wearing a kaffiyeh, or surmise on motive, as if wilfully blind to the obvious context of the attack.
This was not Canada’s 9/11. To frame it in proportion to that spectacular horror would be in itself an abomination.
But it was a blunt warning that Canada is no haven from the ideology of extremism, the vortex of violence that is raging. And we whistle by the graveyard of terrorism at our own peril.