This tragedy is only a game changer if we let it be one.

Blog by Peggy Mason, President of the Rideau Institute
(written October 23, 2014)

I have just returned from signing the Book of Remembrance in Ottawa City Hall for Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the young reservist struck down while standing guard at the Ottawa War Memorial, a monument that I can see from the east window of my office at the Rideau Institute. The north window looks directly over the alley to the Langevin Block, the working offices of the Prime Minister of Canada. The front of our building faces onto Sparks Street, between Elgin and Metcalfe streets. This is to say that we were right in the middle of things yesterday, when the first shooting took place and the gunman then apparently fled to Parliament Hill.

After notifying our landlord, Public Works Canada, by telephone of the shooting, the five of us – a very pregnant Operations Manager, the bookkeeper, two other staff and myself – hunkered down to await further developments. An hour later, two security guards arrived to tell us the building was on “lockdown” and we would eventually be evacuated, as the police moved from building to building, “clearing” our block. At one stage, alerted by media tweets, we observed armed soldiers stationed on the rooftops around us while still more tweets urged us to stay “low and away from the windows.”

At about 1 p.m., a group of heavily armed black-clad police suddenly appeared at our office door and hastily escorted us down 13 flights of narrow stairs to the Sparks Street Mall where we were told to “turn right, stick to the wall and run.” Half a block later, we were directed by another group of police officers to cross over the mall and make our way through the RBC building (home of some of the federal courts) and onto Queen Street, and from there to continue south until we were finally beyond the security perimeter.

Once clear of the cordoning, some of us (including our pregnant staffer) set about finding a way home in the chaos of rerouted OC Transpo buses, while the remaining three of us collapsed in a restaurant to have a late lunch, update our status with friends and relatives, and watch the television coverage. Lo and behold, there we were on CTV, scurrying down the mall, trying dutifully to stay close to the north wall.

My initial feeling on awakening this morning, aside from exhaustion born presumably of the aftermath of all that adrenalin flowing yesterday, was one of overwhelming sadness. It was sadness first and foremost for the tragic loss of two Canadian soldiers – but it was also impelled by our seeming societal inability for whatever reasons ( and hopefully we will eventually find out what those reasons are) to intervene in the lives of two very disturbed young men in a way that might have prevented them from taking those two innocent lives in the first place.

Then I began to read some of the thoughtful and considered responses of Canadian editorialists, columnists, freelancers and guest writers, and my spirits started to lift a little. The Globe and Mail editorial, “After the attack, we’re still Canada,” argued passionately that:

…whatever changes we choose to make should be done carefully and calmly, with an understanding of the limited scale, of the threat,    and the nature of the tradeoffs between freedom and safety.

Wesley Wark, in an opinion piece in the same newspaper entitled “Canada’s best response: Move forward,” cites the “failed RCMP effort to monitor and contain Mr. Couture-Rouleau, who like the Ottawa attacker was reportedly known to authorities.” Wark, one of Canada’s leading experts in intelligence studies, then raises the key question: Was there an intelligence failure? He argues that honest and open answers will need to be found quickly, through the medium of a public enquiry with these objectives:

…to learn lessons, to take whatever corrective action may be required and to provide a trusted form of reassurance, distanced from political messaging, about Canadian counterterrorism capabilities.

Linda McQuaig, in iPolitics, asks whether it is too early to ask for a sane conversation about terrorism and reviews the curious refusal of western governments since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to try to understand the motivation of terrorist organizations like Islamic State. She references the comprehensive databank of 2,200 suicide terrorist attacks in the world since 1980, compiled by Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who previously taught U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Airpower Studies. He concludes that such attacks almost always “have a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

In an otherwise sensible column entitled “The end of innocence? Only for the innocent,” the one jarring note is Jeffrey Simpson’s contemptuous dismissal of Justin Trudeau’s much earlier musing on the “root causes of terrorism.” Unlike Mr. Simpson, it seems that the Harper government has belatedly had a welcome change of heart on this issue. Last week they put out calls for research that would “increase our understanding of terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism.” Perhaps reverting to earlier form, however, there was a conspicuous lack of reference to the need for such understanding in the Prime Minister’s statement to the nation on Wednesday evening.

The most eloquent and stirring response I have read is the online article in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, by Emer O’Toole, an assistant professor at Montreal’s Concordia University. Echoing the call of other columnists for “an intelligent, measured government reaction,” O’Toole then took the Prime Minister’s assertion that Canada and Canadians will not be intimidated and gave it an entirely new and utterly appropriate meaning:

But let there be no mistake: we won’t let this society be divided into “us and them”; we’ll stand up to anyone who uses the language of terror to racially harass the citizens and residents of this country; we’ll be vigilant against government assaults on our civil liberties. Harper’s right: we will not be intimidated.

Wise words to guide us in the days ahead!