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The Attacks in Ottawa and Quebec – some thoughts

October 24, 2014

Here’s a collection of thoughts on the Ottawa and Quebec attacks this week. Let me make it clear that my first thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims, Nathan Cirillo and Patrice Vincent. This is not a coordinated and clear essay, rather it’s a series of comments that I’ve made on various social media platforms in one convenient place:

1. Media coverage of the attacks in Canada was initially measured, serious and did not exaggerate or speculate unduly. This was noted by American publications (for example, Mother Jones). The broadcast media, particularly the CBC, were much better than the papers in this regard. However, within a day, the usual narrative that accompanies these kinds of events in their aftermath started to emerge, in particular the idea that ‘everything has changed’ or must change – for example, this piece in the National Post. This is the worst possible reaction to what happened. The best way to be is not to be intimidated or afraid. To remain committed to a democratic and open society. To reject the politics of fear and of violence and aggressive intervention overseas. To perhaps rekindle that (however mythical) vision of Canada as a peace-maker and peace-builder.

2. It is quite instructive to compare the government’s reactions to these attacks with their reactions to the disappearance and deaths of hundreds of aboriginal women and girls and their complete rejection of action in the latter case. Why is pretty much everything still the same after the death of Tina Fontaine but ‘nothing will be the same again’ after the murder of Nathan Cirillo? Something to think about…

3. Of course, a lot of the reaction, including already some racist and Islamophobic attacks, have focused on the supposed religious affiliations of the attackers. But these murders were carried out by alienated young Canadian men on other Canadians, just like Justin Bourque who killed three policemen in New Brunswick back in June. Unlike Bourque, both the recent attackers claimed radical Islamic affiliation and identity. But at least one of them had been turned away from mosques for behaving strangely, and few Muslims here or anywhere else in the world would recognise either of them as fellows. Why are we still concentrating on IS / the Middle East in looking for answers and responsibility… and continuing in our aggressive (re)action there, when it is our young men who are doing this? What is it about our society that is failing our young people?

4. What about the role of the state in preventing these attacks? Why it is that Canada’s intelligence services didn’t stop the attackers this week, especially as the first was on the top priority watchlist of 90 ‘radicalized’ people; and the second was a known career criminal who had just been refused a passport because he was considered too dangerous. Well, one reason is that under Harper the priorities of the intelligence services have been clearly misdirected for political / economic ends. Take this list on CSIS’s public website: top of the list is environmentalists trying to prevent logging activities. If you can find me a single example of a Canadian environmental activist who even tried to endanger anyone’s life, I’d be very surprised. These aren’t ‘terrorists’, these are activists. The intelligence services should not be used as a political tool to benefit particular industries and target those who actually care about saving our lives and our environment, whether those are environmentalists, indigenous people or others. The intelligence services, if they are to have any ethical purpose at all, should be to prevent real and present threats to life.

5. Yet of course, for the current Canadian government, the attacks serve as evidence for existing (and probably as yet unproposed) new laws or changes to the law. But te attacks this week were not evidence of the need for new powers, they were evidence of the failure of the intelligence services and police to use their existing powers properly. There should be no fast-tracking of bills to increase security powers using these events as an excuse – instead any changes in the law should be only be proposed following a full, open and accountable inquiry into what happened and what went wrong.

6. Let’s hope that any inquiry into these attacks doesn’t exclude the possible role that the abolition of the long gun registry might have played in hindering the ability of police to prevent the second attack… I trust of course that the government will be entirely open to exploring the possibility that allowing people to have unregistered rifles and shotguns might just have been a mistake. It is also ironic that the same people who are now demanding increased government powers of surveillance and security are the ones who justified the ending of the registry on the grounds that it constituted unnecessary government interference in private lives.

7. Finally, the attacks are already being packaged and presented as if they are finished and, now, we respond. It’s convenient in many ways for the official narrative that is emerging that both attackers are dead. I’m not saying they were killed deliberately with this in mind, not at all.

NB: Some witnesses also seemed to indicate that the shooter was being driven by another attacker, and I reported this in earlier versions of this post, but this seems to have been incorrect.

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