Last week in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, murdered a soldier posted at a war memorial, entered parliament with his gun, and was shot dead before he could kill anyone else. Days earlier, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, rammed his car into two soldiers in a Quebec town. One of the soldiers died. The attacker was killed by police. America's thoughts and prayers go out to those hurt by these disgusting murders. They're unnerving reminders that the world is a dangerous place, that life can be interrupted by an evil or crazy person bent on killing. It is only human to feel a moment of fear in the aftermath of an attack like this: to think of how scary it would be to witness such a thing, to lament that there's no way to perfectly protect our loved ones, to wonder when the next killing will be.
That is how people react to gang killings, robberies gone wrong, even school massacres. As well, attempts are made to decrease the frequency of future murders. But last week's attacks in Canada are being characterized as Islamic terrorism*, a mental category that elicits a unique reaction from some elites and many people.
"This changes everything," said one member of parliament.
No, it doesn't!
That's one example of common reactions that are irrational and harmful. Insofar as murders like this are meant to sow terror among the public, too many people unwittingly abet the killers, as if our only choice is submitting to a narrative in which we are terrorized. Bloomberg captured this most powerfully, if unwittingly, in an analysis article that was leading Google News soon after the parliament shooting:
Let's unpack what that headline implicitly and explicitly says: 1) For the U.S., the present era is defined by "terror." 2) Due to these attacks, the same is now true for Canada whether it likes it or not. 3) These attacks have caused the whole nation of Canada to "reel," which is to say, to lose one's balance and stagger or lurch violently. "Terror reached Canada this week when a 'radicalized' convert to Islam ran down and killed a soldier," the story begins. "Canada had until now dodged a terror attack even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and others had warned that the nation, whether from Islamist extremists or lone wolves ... was vulnerable."
This framing elides the choice before Canadians. They need not be "dragged" into an era defined by "terror" as a result of these killings. They need not "reel" from these attacks. They need not unilaterally infringe on their own civil liberties and freedoms.
They can choose to keep these attacks in perspective.
Doing so can be difficult in times of trauma. One feels for Stephen Marche when he writes, in Esquire, "The Canada I believed to be so safe, so secure is gone. All of that was the Canada of my youth. This is Canada now." The way he feels is understandable.
It is also irrational and needs to be understood as such.
The murder of two people does not mark a new era. It does not render one of the word's safest countries unsafe. It does not make one of history's most secure nations insecure. We cannot know the future with certainty, but everything we know about the present and recent past suggests overreacting to these attacks poses a greater threat to Canada than terrorism, much as the Iraq War killed more Americans than 9/11, cost more money than 9/11, and did more to weaken us than 9/11.
The panic that followed 9/11—that most of us felt—was at least informed by the fact that America had never suffered an attack like it. The notion that Canada has just broken with a halcyon past when it was safe from even two murders is historical amnesia.
"This was not the first time Canada’s parliament had been a target, nor was it the biggest terrorist attack in the country’s history," The Economist notes. "An inept bomber intent on killing as many MPs as possible blew himself up in the same building in 1966, and an armed man hijacked a bus and fired shots outside parliament in 1989. The 1985 bombing of an Air India flight to London from Toronto, in which 329 people died, remains the largest terror attack originating in Canada."
Then there was the FLQ crisis, which Americans would regard as one of the most gripping parts of Canadian history if we knew any:
It was an autumn of brilliant sunshine and relative prosperity, and it should have been a time of hope and thanksgiving. But October, 1970, became instead a time of turmoil unprecedented in the country. Terrorists seized a corner of power and a corner of legitimacy. Soldiers were in the streets and the body of a politician was in the trunk of a car. And a great many Canadians were simply scared.
It was the kind of thing that was supposed to happen in other countries—the other countries that were the stuff of newspapers and television—but not in the Canada that had just celebrated its centennial and dazzled the world with Expo 67. As the years go by, it is harder and harder to explain what happened in October, 1970, to those who weren't around. Hard to explain why the country's values seemed imperilled, why the country itself seemed in danger of collapse. Hard to explain how anyone could believe that boring old Canada could be in danger of an apprehended insurrection, how the prime minister of the day could describe the city of Montreal as "seized in a reign of terror." ...
That bit of history began on the morning of Oct. 5, 1970, when a gang of four armed men drove along Montreal's Redpath Crescent and up to the imposing house that was the home of the British trade commissioner, James Richard Cross, known to his friends as Jasper. Within moments, they had invaded the house and emerged with the hapless Mr. Cross in handcuffs. They bundled him into a car bearing the dome light of a Lasalle taxi and they drove off.
As they went, one of them announced to a startled gardener across the street that they were the FLQ, the Front de libération du Québec. Within hours, they had issued a swaggering communiqué that described Mr. Cross as "the representative of the ancient racist and colonialist British system" and set out a breathtaking list of demands. They wanted the release of 23 "political prisoners" who would be flown to Cuba or Algeria, $500,000 in gold bars, publication of the FLQ manifesto in newspapers and on radio and television across Quebec, identification of the informer who led police to an FLQ cell and reinstatement of a group of truck drivers who had been displaced from the Post Office.
The FLQ was not born on the morning of Oct. 5. Its initials were branded on seven years of terrorism. Seven people had died and dozens had been injured. In retrospect, it seems impossible, but one bomb was planted somewhere in Quebec every 10 days. The bombs were planted in places that might reasonably seen as symbols of capitalism or English-Canadian colonialism: government offices, Westmount homes, armed forces installations, RCMP offices, City Hall, great retail and industrial enterprises that bore English names, mailboxes, the Montreal Stock Exchange, the Liberal Club. In June, a student had pleaded guilty to 17 armed robberies that were carried out to bankroll the FLQ. Fifteen months before, police had arrested a man whose home contained one half-completed bomb, 24 bombs that were ready and 96 sticks of dynamite. He pleaded guilty to 124 counts related to bombing.
An almost certainly incomplete Wikipedia page on school shootings documents that the Canada "believed to be so safe, so secure" suffered from that type of tragedy in 2014, 2013, 2010, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2004, 1999, 1992, 1989, 1978, 1975, 1959, 1902, and 1884. "The worst such incident in the country’s history was the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre," Joshua Keating writes, "in which a 25-year-old man who had expressed a hatred of feminists and women working in non-traditional jobs entered an engineering school in Montreal with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle and killed 14 women. Ten women and four men were also injured."
More significantly, for our purposes, "Canada’s most recent major gun tragedy occurred in June, when 24-year-old Justin Bourque, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, shotgun, and crossbow, shot five Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, killing three." But there's no suggestion that the killer was a radical Muslim, so the world was mostly oblivious.
I've often noted that even in 2001, the year of the most successful terrorist attack in U.S. history, Americans were orders of magnitude more likely to be killed in a car crash. Today it's worth remembering that for the last year, five years, 10 years, or 20 years, Canadians were significantly less likely to be harmed by terrorists than a car crash involving a moose. I cannot promise that the moose menace won't be overtaken this year by the terrorist menace, but presuming as much from attacks that killed two people isn't just irrational, it is irresponsible fear-mongering.
On the neoconservative right, there is a knee-jerk attempt to use any murder involving a radicalized Muslim as proof that "the liberal media" is understating or ignoring the threat, as in this item at The Weekly Standard by Geoffrey Norman:
The New York Times has discovered something that many already knew. But they knew it from various defects of character—because they were racists or right-wingers or some other primitive life form. So what they knew wasn’t fact or truth but superstition or prejudice. The headline on the Times story reads:
In the West, a Growing List of Attacks Linked to Extremism
Up until yesterday’s attack in Canada these things were classified as “workplace violence,” or by some other euphemism.
Now, we learn that it is “extremism" that is behind the attacks. Progress of a sort.
Next question for the Times: What kind of extremism are we talking about here?
This is almost comical hackery, given that the very Times article under discussion could hardly mention Islam more prominently. Here are its first two paragraphs:
The Canadian authorities identified the gunman who fatally shot a soldier guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Wednesday as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a Canadian born in 1982. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, who had a criminal record, had recently converted to Islam, senior American law enforcement officials said. He was shot and killed in the attack.
The episode was the third deadly assault on people in uniform in North America this week, and the latest in a growing list of attacks in the West against soldiers, and in some cases civilians, by individuals who have professed affinity for radical Islam or sympathy for militant ideology. Recent attacks also raise new fears of the Islamic State’s influence on so-called lone-wolf assailants.
The article goes on to list numerous murderous attacks, all of them perpetrated by Muslims! But the Weekly Standard critique is also oblivious to the fact that in Canada, the aforementioned June attack on mounted police by a non-Muslim, anti-government extremist killed more people than last week's attacks by apparent Islamist extremists. That is the extremism that The New York Times elided.
Terrorism perpetrated by Islamist radicals is obviously a threat in Canada, the U.S., and beyond–one of many threats that ought to be studied and mitigated insofar as it is possible, not a singular, existential threat over which to be terrorized. The reappearance of Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers in the Canadian parliament was a perfect moment not only because he was given a well-deserved standing ovation for killing the man who tried to storm in with his gun blazing, but because he was honored as parliament reconvened for business as usual:
That is as it should be. The Economist reported on the sensible words of two Canadian politicians:
The two main opposition leaders, Thomas Mulcair of the New Democrats and Justin Trudeau of the Liberals, avoided making any political hay out of the incident, and neither posited any theory about a terrorist plot. “We woke up this morning in a country blessed by love, diversity and peace, and tomorrow we will do the same,” said Mr Mulcair, leader of the official opposition. Mr Trudeau referred to the gunman as a criminal and said that Canada was a nation of fairness, justice and the rule of law, and should not be intimidated into changing that.
Just so. Canada is as strong, safe, and secure a nation as it was two days or two decades ago. There may be small security tweaks that make sense in light of last week's attacks. Authorities there should certainly be on guard in the coming weeks for copycats, and are correct to invest government resources in counterterrorism. But for the most part, all Canadians need to do is to keep calm and carry on. As ever, the world could go to pieces tomorrow in scores of different ways, many of which aren't even on our radars, but for now, we've got it damned good, and the best way to conserve our good fortune is to assess threats rationally.
Instead, "the shooting death of a soldier and the wounding of three security personnel by a suspected Islamic terrorist this week may go down as the pivotal moment that allowed the country's spy services to expand their monitoring of Canadian citizens," Foreign Policy reports. If so, the attackers will have succeeded in making Canada a less free country. They should be denied that victory.
*Some have objected that, by definition, "terrorist attacks" target civilians, not soldiers. Others insist these soldiers were effectively civilians, far from any battlefield–and that members of parliament in session certainly qualify as civilians. For our purposes, it is enough to observe that almost everyone in the news media and the Canadian government consider these attacks to be Islamist terrorism (though it's still possible one or both killers will be found to have different motives, or to be so mentally ill that speaking of motive might not make sense).