I sat down on Wednesday morning in my office shortly after 9 pm to plot out, ironically, how I was going to leave Canada. Academics can be a cruel game when it comes to deciding where one is going to live, and as a young intellectual in search of a job, I was staring out at words like Lingnan University, Gettysburg College, Fordham University…all places outside my home country.
And then it started. A flash across my twitter feed, headlines across the CBC…a solider gunned down at the War Memorial, shots fired in the Center Block of Parliament… immediately, images of military forces fanning out across Ottawa flooded my computer screen. There were reports that one gunman had been killed in Center Block, but that others were still on the loose. Maybe they were on the roof of a building? Maybe in the dense woodland area off the Hill? The city was put in lock down, as thousands of government workers huddled behind closed doors, waiting for authorities to announce they had captured whoever else was out there. The gunman in Center Block had come within feet of caucusing MPs from all parties, including the Prime Minister.
In a matters of minutes our beloved capital was wounded and immobilized, roiled by a threat that was menacing precisely because it was still unseen, its extent and force unknown.
Reporters noted time and again in the ensuing hours how surreal all of this seemed. How could placid, boring Ottawa become the site of gun battles and military lockdowns? Canadians do not, as a general rule, worry much about public acts of terror. Despite our over decade long involvement in Afghanistan, and our current government’s unwavering support for Israel’s expansionist policies on Palestinian land, we have been relatively immune from the threat of terrorism. In the last decade the American people, just like the Brits, the Spaniards, and many others, have endured terrorism and violence on a scale far greater than what we witnessed on Wednesday. In America, in particular, domestic gun violence is a routine part of life, so much so that shootings involving merely one or two deaths hardly break into the relentless buzz of the news cycle.
But this is not the case in sleepy, quiet Canada. One of the great virtues of this country is that it is not a militarized society. Our public spaces are genuinely open and accessible. Gun violence is rare and, when it does occur, is a profound civic concern. Before Wednesday, any Canadian who wanted to could walk right up to the Parliament buildings and touch them. They could play frisbee, do yoga, picnic, or protest on the front lawns outside the storied buildings, their freedom of movement intact. This is not simply a matter of bourgeois leisure or aesthetic appreciation. It is, rather, the embodiment of our democratic rights: that our public institutions (and the spaces they occupy) be open and transparent to the people they serve.
So when Canadians commented on how surreal this all was, they were not just talking about the sight of military officers swooping in on Parliament’s front quad. They were talking about the feeling that some cherished sense of openness, some vital part of our social fabric, was being torn asunder.
Canada and the Other
Will we have access to our public spaces in the same way as we once did? Will we follow the American model and militarize our social life, so that security can only be achieved via the state and its apparatus of force?
To express these concerns is not to advocate a naive approach to Canada’s security. We have made foreign policy choices to actively engage in a part of the world where political extremism is present, where forces exist who have called for attacks against us. As I’ve written about before, our policy choices in the Middle East are agonizing and violent, with no easy solutions in front of us. The loss of two land wars over the last decade needs to serve as a warning regarding the limits of Euro-American military and political power in that part of the world. Be that as it may, our continued interventionism will mean that terrorism will remain a threat to us, even as we take every measure possible to mitigate it.
I believe Canada could have a more nuanced and realistic foreign policy, particularly when it comes to Harper’s buoyant support of Israel. Even the Obama administration has tempered its support for the Netanyahu government in light of its continued settlement construction in the West Bank and, by extension, its repeated violations of Palestinian sovereignty. But regardless of how nuanced a foreign policy Canada embraces, political engagement of any form in that part of the world is going to leave us vulnerable to reprisal attacks by sympathizers of radical political movements.
The key now is to meld a realistic assessment of the threats against us with our determination to remain an open, multi-cultural, and loving society. Terrorism is effective not because it will ever overthrow the state and take power. No lone gunman, or even coordinated groups of attacks, could accomplish that, given the overwhelming monopoly on force that the state possesses. Instead, terrorism becomes effective by forcing us to militarize and securitize ourselves to such a degree that we no longer remember what our basic values are, making us see potential enemies all around us and nothing more.
We cannot let that happen in Canada. We must balance security with openness, vigilance with acceptance, state power with individual liberty. We are a young nation, one that lacks founding myths, ethnic or religious homogeneity, and powerful social cohesion. We grew up as an odd outgrowth of the British Empire, a dumping ground for poor European immigrants looking for a better life. We struggle to define ourselves as a nation because, in many real ways, we are an amalgam, an accident of empire, a funny experiment that the British at some point had to give full sovereignty to.
Yet it is precisely because we are not a nation in the traditional sense- with no grand civilizational narrative to fall back on, no ethnic purisms that are meant to bond us (we are not all the sons of one god or sage king, we do not share the same blood)- that we have been successful in building a society where differences co-exist in devolved and productive relationships. The very word Canada, if it is to stand for anything, must stand for a productive openness to the Other, to all Others, whose very alterity is a mark of their estranged belonging within our polyglot country.
Of course, we must confront terrorism. And I have complete faith that our security, military, and intelligence forces are capable of doing so. But let us never forget what being part of this nuanced social experiment, this hybridized bastard of Empire, means for our ability to relate to one another. In the coming days we cannot let our public discourse devolve into anti-immigrant diatribes, ethnic and religious stereotyping, and jingoistic zealotry about “taking the fight to the enemy.” These impulses will do nothing to help us understand the facts underlying both acts of terrorism we endured this week. And understanding the underlying causes behind violent behavior, and addressing them before young men become radicalized, must be our long term goal.
Violence at the Margins
Information is already coming out that the shooter on Parliament Hill had reached out to authorities numerous times for help in order to deal with ongoing mental illness and addiction issues. This was clearly an individual who required positive social intervention on behalf of the state, indeed who begged for that intervention in front of a court who turned him away. His push towards terrorism may have been the final expression of a process of economic and social marginalization that began long ago.
He betrayed Canada in a cowardly and unforgivable way on Wednesday. But could that betrayal have been prevented by better institutional policy? Could better treatment facilities and a justice system geared towards crisis prevention and individualized reform have prevented his slide into radicalized hatred? At what point was the shooter’s will to be a productive part of his community broken?
These are the questions we must confront in the ensuing days. Jingoistic fantasies about destroying enemies who lurk behind every marginalized corner will do us no good in our bid to understand the violence we have endured.
Terrorism and the Everyday
The events on Wednesday left us feeling profoundly wounded, impotent to stop a violence that was directed against fellow citizens and our common ideals. As I sat in my office watching the news, I wanted to scream out, to bash my walls, to find the people who did this and make them pay. And yet I could do nothing but watch the events unfold, my stomach churning as surreal violence played out again and again in front of me.
At a certain point all of it became too much. I had to leave my office, to get out from behind the computer screen and walk off the roiling energy inside me. I set out on a walk across the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. I thought about all the work that was waiting for me upon my return, all the teaching and research yet to be done, the students who needed to be emailed, the job letters needing to be written. Drowning in a sea of institutional labor, I felt even more powerless to help my country, to put an end to the violence that hurt us.
How could one lowly graduate researcher do anything to stem the traumatic violence that we had endured?
As I walked through Queens Park, amber leaves falling across my shoulders, my breathing slowed, my thoughts expanded, and my desire for individual militancy eased ever so slightly. A small epiphany sang out from the recesses of my mind: the work that was waiting for me back in my office was necessary and meaningful, if at times tortuously bureaucratic. How do you combat terrorism? Certainly, our security forces must track potential threats, our police officers must respond with force, our legal systems must prosecute suspects who harm us.
But, in a more fundamental sense, do you not combat terrorism by creating a society that people want to live and invest in, that people can be at home in?
That is not a task that any one person can do on their own. It is a collective project, built and re-built constantly in our everyday lives, as an ongoing process that is never finished. On the individual level, it means you go to work with dignity, commitment, and kindness in your heart. You try to be the best doctor, teacher, garbage man, electrician, mother, father, or partner you can be. You combat terrorism by imbuing your life and labor with kindness for all people, working without self-aggrandizement to make your small corner of the social whole more humane.
I cannot shoot a gunman in cold blood in the center of Parliament. Luckily, there are others who can do so, if the time comes for that. I can, however, get up everyday and be the best teacher and writer I can possibly be. Through that work you may reach a student, help a colleague, open a new perspective for someone inside your classroom. A modest task, no doubt, but one that can provide human support amidst the pressures of an often alienating modern life. This is a form of support that can convince someone that the social whole around them is not as terrifying as it may have seemed. That it too, one day, may become a home for them.
It is in the quiet dignity of the unknown everyday, the passing hours spent in work and at play, with loved ones and colleagues, that we do what we can to build a society free of the deprivations (both material and mental) that inspire terrorist acts.
Canada is not an abstract idea. It is an ongoing experiment, of love and trust, in ourselves and others, found in the polite, overlooked rhythms of the everyday. Terrorism can momentarily wound it, but it can never destroy it. For its enduring dignity, its industrious humility, are part of us- they cannot be snuffed out by cowardly violence.
Let us not dash towards hatred, or a new War on Terror, or dreams of blood lust against shadow enemies who track our every movement. Rather, let us commit ourselves once again to the dignity of everyday life, to the humane simplicity of being fortunate to one another. In a word, let us commit ourselves to Canada, as practiced empathy for self and Other.
It is only within that empathy that we will find the succor and courage we seek.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.
Photographs: Beloved Brands, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, CBC.ca,