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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Who are the victims of Wednesday's attacks at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill?

| October 23, 2014
Who are the victims of Wednesday's attacks at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill?

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The news that a soldier was shot at the War Memorial broke at just before 10.00 a.m. Wednesday, October 22.

On CBC Radio One's local Ottawa newscast, reporter Giacomo Panico breathlessly described the scene at the Memorial, which is just two blocks from the CBC studios.

Panico said that people on the scene were still administering CPR to a man who, we would later learn, was 24-year-old Nathan Cirillo. He came from Hamilton and was a single father to one child.

We would also later learn that the heroic efforts to save Cirillo's life were in vain. He was shot at close range in the chest.

From that time at just before 10:00 a.m., and onward throughout the day and the evening, the media -- both over the air and online -- went into full crisis, even panic, mode.

Everybody and their uncle was talking and commenting, speculating and hypothesizing, tweeting and posting.

As almost inevitably happens in such cases there was as much misinformation, false news and unverified rumour as fact.

First, we learned that the attack had spread to Parliament Hill itself, a short block and a half from the Memorial, but with very few details.

Shortly after that, Ottawa Police reported that there was also an attack in the nearby shopping mall, the Rideau Centre. That turned out to be entirely false.

When images and information about Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's assault on the Centre Block of Parliament emerged a little bit later, witnesses and reporters gave us the impression that a number of innocent people had been shot, some potentially fatally. One reporter even described seeing what he took to be one of Zehaf-Bibeau's victims lying apparently lifeless on Parliament's marble floor.  

Later, however, quite a bit later, we found out that the seemingly lifeless person was, in fact, Zehaf-Bibeau himself.

It also emerged, after many, many hours, that no one else was seriously injured. In the end, the only fatalities the frightening day produced were those of Cirillo and the shooter himself, Zehaf-Bibeau.

Parliamentary security staff and the Sergeant-at-Arms are legitimate heroes

It is natural that it strikes a great many as almost beyond belief that an armed man could walk (or, more likely, run) right through the front doors of Parliament almost entirely unimpeded.

The fact is that Parliamentary security has been, up until now, based on the genteel principle that we are all reasonable people, and that nobody who visits Parliament actually intends to make trouble.

The only security at the (not-open-to-the-public) main front doors of the Centre Block has -- again, until now -- been unarmed. The role of the agents there has been to courteously direct wayward visitors to the appropriate entrance a floor below, where there are armed guards and metal detectors.

Sadly, that will now certainly change.

When it comes to Parliamentary security, however, what is encouraging about Wednesday's events is that after getting past the unarmed security agents at the front door, Zehaf-Bibeau did not get very far.

All available information indicates that Parliamentary security staff -- and in particular the Sergeant-at-Arms -- shot and killed the armed intruder, in a volley of gunfire, as the man with a rifle tried to hide himself in the corridor that leads to the historic Library of Parliament.

Initial reports intimated that the gunfire witnesses heard came, mostly, from Zehaf-Bibeau. Now we are told the shooter had nothing more than a Winchester 30-30 hunting rifle, which means he most likely had only about half a dozen shots left before he would have had to re-load. That fightening, loud, echoing volley of gunfire onlookers heard, including Members of Parliament in their caucus rooms or hiding elsewhere, came principally not from the shooter, but from the authorities who were tasked with stopping him.

Some have observed that if this were the United States Zehaf-Bibeau would likely have used some kind of highly lethal repeating automatic weapon, not a simple hunting rifle.

Of course, not too long ago Zehaf-Bibeau, or whoever gave or sold him the gun, would have had to register even that humble rifle.

It is not clear having to register the long gun would have made any difference to the events of Wednesday, October 22. However, as we sift through the ashes of these events, it may be appropriate to ask how a person with Zehaf-Bibeau's criminal record and apparent mental instability could manage to get his hands on any kind of firearm.

New restrictions on civil liberties, but not on gun ownership

Just last week, the Prime Minister was touting his government's abolition of the long gun registry to hunters in Northern Ontario, and warning that if the Conservatives are not re-elected another party in power might restore that hated infringement of the sacred rights of gun-owners.

While the Conservatives are dead set against minimal measures that might restrict individual "liberty" when it comes to guns, even before the violent events of Wednesday they were planning to introduce all kinds of other intrusions into Canadians' liberty, in the name of security.

As Matthew Behrens has pointed out elsewhere on rabble the Zehaf-Bibeau attacks will now make it extremely difficult for any opposition leaders to resist whatever Harper proposes.

And in the House on Thursday morning, commenting on the violent events of the previous day, the Prime Minister did not mince his words.

His government's reaction to the violent episode on Wednesday will be to introduce additional, draconian security measures. Just watch us, he might add.

The first victim of this attack was a peaceful single parent from Hamilton Ontario, who was just quietly doing his job.

In a sense, another victim was a mentally disturbed, drug-using young man with a record of petty crime, who found a weird form of solace in a crack-pot version of Islam (which, in turn, was bred out of the decades of western-initiated violence visited on the Middle East).

Many pundits and politicians will want to give a greater political meaning to the Zehaf-Bibeau attacks than is justified by what we know up to this point. What happened on Wednesday, based on what we know so far, was as much a case of mental illness that found a violent outlet, rationalized by extremist political-religious dogma, as of calculated politically-motivated terrorism.

Some want to argue that Wednesday's murder and assault on Parliament was caused by Canada's foreign entanglements.

Others have it that this violence was the work of a highly organized extremist army, set on destroying our way of life.

They both may be wrong.

As far as we can tell, the violent events of Wednesday were the work of a single, sad, disturbed individual.

Inevitably, there are such individuals in any society. Often, if and when they do not get the counsel they need, they hurt people, although mostly only themselves and those close to them.

Sometimes, though, such disturbed folks lash out violently against others, even perfect strangers. On such occasions, these disturbed people might attribute their actions to all kinds of bizarre rationales: dreams, hallucinations, paranoid fantasies. On rare occasions, those rationales take on religious or political forms.

Does the existence of such threats coming from the margins of society mean that we all have to abandon a goodly portion of  our civil liberties and live in a quasi-police state?

In this writer's view, we need more evidence for that sort of strategy than what happened yesterday and earlier this week at St-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

That is why all of us, and our civil liberties, may be the third victim of Wednesday's violent events.

The truth remains that distracted drivers yakking (or worse, texting) on cell phones, or heedless companies that dump toxic effluent into our air and water still represent far greater threats to our lives and well-being than all of those deranged individuals who might dress their insane gestures in the "noble" cloak of political or religious "terrorism."

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