The tragic events of 22 October in Ottawa


Having listened fairly closely to media coverage of the shootings at the National War Memorial and Centre Block of Parliament in Ottawa yesterday, this is what I think we know:

1) A lone gunman, later identified as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, shot and killed an unarmed reserve soldier at the National War Memorial; by all appearances, this was a despicably cowardly act.

2) The same lone gunman somehow managed to enter the Center Block and proceed down the corridor or Hall of Honour toward the caucus rooms of various parties in the house, some of which were meeting at the time.  This reveals serious weaknesses in routine security protocols on Parliament Hill and particularly the House of Commons.

3) Significantly, according to various reports, the gunman was armed with a “double-barrelled shotgun” (highly unlikely), a “long hunting rifle” or a “two shot rifle”. (Surely hours after the event a modicum of investigative reporting should be able to specify the weapon.)

4) Once they detected the gunman, security forces moved in and, judging from great din of gunfire and subsequent accounts, dozens of shots were fired before Zehaf-Bibeau was “put down” by parliamentary Sergeant at Arms, Kevin Vickers.

What we don’t know is the motivation for Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions. Was he is a true Jihadist terrorist loyal to ISIS? Was he angered at Canada’s deployment of forces to Iraq? Was he was inspired by the earlier attack on soldiers in Quebec? Was he merely a troubled soul alienated from society and seeking his moment of fame?  Is something else at play here? 

Point: Any speculation about Zehaf-Bibeau’s motivation even 24 hours after the event is just that—speculation— and since he was killed it may remain so unless some form of indirect proof of his reasons emerges.

That said, if any of the available descriptions of the gunman’s weapon are true, or even if Zehaf-Bibeau had a repeating hunting rifle, then: 

1) Ninety percent (90%) of the shots fired must have been fired by security forces. The noisy shoot-out may have been justifiable in the circumstances but the din caused by security forces’ fire greatly amplified the apparent scale of the gunman’s attack.  In my view, reporting of the incident consistent with the available evidence should have emphasized this pointThere could not have been any great exchange of gunfire.

 2) The attack was clearly ill-planned and logistically incompetent if great damage to property or persons was Zehaf-Bibeau’s intent.  It was certainly not the all-out organized assault on Parliament Hill that various media and political accounts would have us believe it was; it was most certainly not Canada’s 9/11. Media personnel understandably enjoy reporting exceptional and exciting events but I found the near hysteria with which Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions and their aftermath were sometimes projected into Canadian’s living rooms profoundly disturbing.

Just what was this attack all about then?  It seems that Zehaf-Bibeau was a troubled quasi-loner with a minor criminal record and history of mental problems. Perhaps he found a sense of purpose and belonging by association with Islamic extremists; perhaps he was inspired by recent news events. In any case, his solo performance was hardly the game-changing attack on Canadian identity some have made it out to be.

What lessons can we take from yesterday’s events? Certainly society should guard itself against the actions by unstable individuals but let us not over-react. There have always been troubled individuals; Canada’s star has not been dislodged from the firmament. Corrective over-reaction by governments or security agencies to Wednesday’s events that compromise the openness of Canadian society or that limit Canadian’s privacy, freedom of movement or other civil liberties would be more damaging to the nation that the violent acts of any number of Zehaf-Bibeaus.

In this light, it seems to me there are three take-aways from the recent Ottawa tragedy:

1) Government should act need to bolster security on Parliament Hill and other obvious targets. (Zehaf-Bibeau has done us the favour by revealing the particular vulnerability of the House of Commons.)

2) The nation should do more to prevent the alienation of its youth and to help those who do go astray. Perhaps we need to mend the social safety nets that have been allowed to fray in recent decades of trumpeting the ‘every man/women for him/herself’ competitive individualism that currently shapes social relationships. (Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, there is such a thing as society,)

3) The world may indeed be changing, but the media should nevertheless strive harder to report individual events within the bounds of evidence and otherwise keep them in perspective.