Blair Gable / Courtesy Reuters Flowers, mementos and well-wishes are placed at the Canadian War Memorial in downtown Ottawa, October 23, 2014.

In Perspective

How to Talk About the Ottawa Shooting

“Our world has changed forever today, and we don’t even know yet how much,” Canadian Senator Fabian Manning said on Wednesday, hours after a gunman entered Canada’s Parliament building and opened fire. In an editorial headlined “The End of Innocence,” the Calgary Herald solemnly declared, “Canada will never be the same again,” adding, “We crossed a threshold as a nation on Wednesday and we can never go back to being the way we were before.” Susan Clairmont, a columnist for the Hamilton Spectator, wrote, “Just as America changed the moment the planes hit the Twin Towers, Canada was forever altered the moment Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was struck down. In the hours and days and years to come, we will know that this was a pivotal moment that we can never turn back from.” 

And on it goes. Read any Canadian newspaper this week, and Canada appears to have been radically altered. We suffered not one but two murders by men apparently driven by Islamist ideology: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who was shot down on Parliament Hill after killing an unarmed reservist at the National War Memorial, and Martin Rouleau, known as Ahmad, another recent convert to Islam who was shot dead on Monday after deliberately running over two Canadian soldiers near Montreal, killing one of them.

Canadians are asked to believe that this is our 9/11, our 2005 London bombing, our Netanya Passover massacre. Many newspapers, including my own, the Toronto-based National Post, cleared their front-page sections to focus on Zehaf-Bibeau, calling his actions one of the defining savageries of our age. Meanwhile, national sympathy has poured in for Cirillo, a handsome father who appears in photos playing affectionately with his dog, and thousands have commended Kevin Vickers, the parliamentary sergeant-at-arms who helped overpower Zehaf-Bibeau.

Make no mistake: Wednesday’s events were horrific. Cirillo’s death was a senseless and evil act. Vickers is a true hero. And it was inspiring to watch a video, taken on a cell phone by a reporter and widely circulated online, showing Vickers’ colleagues rushing out to confront Zehaf-Bibeau. That said, the transformative power of this week’s events has been overstated. A decade from now, Canadians will remember this week as one in which two mentally unstable Islamic converts staged amateurish, low-yield, one-man suicide attacks on Canadian soldiers. They will not remember it as a turning point in the nation’s history.

These attacks are not symptomatic of mass radicalization within the Canadian Muslim community, one of the most moderate in the Western world. (Indeed, Zehaf-Bibeau was thrown out of his mosque shortly before his rampage. The only place he could find to proselytize was a homeless shelter.) Nor were the men part of any professional, well-organized, foreign-trained corps of sleeper terrorist cells, as the 9/11 attackers were. The only reason Canadians have painted Wednesday’s attack in such epic terms is that Zehaf-Bibeau killed a particularly sympathetic target and then attacked a particularly iconic building. Aside from the installation of more invasive security protocols on Parliament Hill and more aggressive tracking of known ISIS sympathizers, it’s not even clear that the attacks call for a dramatic policy response.

Rouleau, 25, who was shot after running down two soldiers on Monday, owned a financially troubled pressure-washing company and was involved in a custody dispute with his ex. He reportedly became obsessed with dark Internet-peddled conspiracy theories after his business was robbed. Friends report that he grew a long beard, became antisocial, converted to Islam, and began posting extremist content on social media. At one point, he tried to travel to the Middle East to fight in Syria. Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, had become estranged from both his parents, lived in homeless shelters, and assembled a substantial criminal rap sheet. Those who knew him say he took drugs and exhibited bizarre, unpredictable mood swings.

Were they terrorists? Since both men are dead, and neither seems to have left any sort of detailed manifesto, we cannot know for sure. The available evidence does suggest that their actions were motivated by a newfound adherence to militant Islam in general, and an attraction to the murderous imperatives of ISIS in particular. That would put them in the terrorist category. But in both cases, it also seems that the voyage into jihadism was facilitated, if not outright propelled, by a generalized mental breakdown — and, in Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, full-blown mental illness.

Mentally unstable, or Islamic extremist? It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Mentally unstable young men seeking to justify their violent and antisocial impulses will latch onto all sorts of fringe religious movements and cults to lend their urges ideological coherence. In 2014, Zehaf-Bibeau and Rouleau were drawn to militant Islam. Twenty years ago, it might have been right-wing Christian survivalism. Fifty years ago, it might have been Marxism. Ninety years ago, it might have been anarchism. The terroristic spasms that emerged from all of these movements did not change Canada forever — and neither will this one. 

In May 1984, a paranoid schizophrenic named Denis Lortie walked into Quebec’s legislature, seeking to assassinate then Premier René Lévesque, and killed three government employees. At the time, no doubt, some Canadians believed that this act had changed their country forever. Thirty years later, few remember the killer’s name — even though the death toll was greater than both of this week’s attacks put together. 

As the media continues to cover Wednesday’s shooting, then, it’s worth keeping some perspective.

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