WASHINGTON – What is the lesson to be drawn from the shootings in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa? Very simple. In the first place, we should accept the fact that democratic, open societies are extremely vulnerable. To be precise, our freedoms are largely the source of our basic fragility. In a democracy, people come and go as they please. Impossible to check on everybody.
Fascination with political violence
But there is more. If you add to this basic reality of “systemic vulnerability” an almost perverse mix of fear and fascination with any and all acts of political violence, we get a bad mix.
Even a relatively small incident like the Ottawa shooting creates an enormous, world-wide echo. So, we get hit because we are easy targets. And each incident gets way too much attention.
One incident gets worldwide attention
In Ottawa’s case, just one shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, managed to get international, non-stop media coverage. Sure enough, his targets were selected because they have high symbolic meaning. A soldier guarding Canada’s War Memorial, and then the Parliament, the nerve center of the state. Still, the gunman, while scaring many people, killed just one person. He himself was killed inside the Parliament.
All this is frightening and tragic. There has been loss of life, and a lot of anxiety and confusion. However, this isolated act of political violence, featuring one lone gunman, is not the end of Canada, and –most certainly– it is not the end of the world.
Too much media coverage
But instead we treat this event as an enormous crisis that could have all sorts of possible ramifications. Cable news TV outlets (CNN, FOX News, MSNBC and others) parade dozens of terrorism experts who theorize, analyze and opine. To make themselves “relevant”, they exaggerate the meaning of such attacks.
As I said, we have a mysterious attraction towards political violence. We want to know everything about killers or would-be killers motivated by religion or by crazy ideologies somehow rooted in weird interpretations of religion, Islam in most cases.
Criminal violence gets no attention
Because of this fascination, just one event, tragic as it may be, causes world-wide uproar. But the equally tragic drug related violence, all the shootings, killings and what not taking place on a daily basis in Chicago or elsewhere get some mention only in the local news. For sure, no national headlines.
And yet, at some level, it is the very same sad phenomenon: violent people killing other human beings. So, why such a different level of coverage and media attention?
May be the difference is that our culture has digested and accepted as “a fact of life” most violence related to criminal activity, even when the numbers of people getting killed are staggering.
Political violence is different
Whereas, political violence inspired by ideology or religion is rare, new and different. This is about killing in the name of a “cause”. The cause seems to be the desire to destroy our society. And therefore, because of this sharply different motivation, political violence supposedly warrants much more attention.
We want to know “why” this person engaged in this or that. Where, when and how exactly was his mind “turned”? More broadly, is there some evil ingredient within Islam that can trigger what we like to call “self-radicalizalization”? And, if this is indeed the case, are we now in a new, uncharted era in which scores, possibly hundreds of young people, just by watching some crazy jihadist videos on the internet, will decide to get machine guns and kill anybody connected with our institutions? Is this the new “enemy within”? And, if so, who’s going to protect us against this subterraneous but pervasive menace?
These are not illegitimate questions. It is totally appropriate to investigate and look for possible conspiracies, recruiting systems, and patterns of behavior.
But what is truly baffling is the non-stop coverage and the loud volume. Like it or not, by obsessing on these rare events, the news media created a panic atmosphere.
Hyperbole and exaggeration
Once again, let’s look at the facts. One person was killed in Ottawa. Two, if we add a previous incident in which another Canadian soldier was killed. This is serious business. But it is not a national, let alone global, catastrophe.
Of course, the first reaction is that we have to do more to protect obvious targets. This is probably true. The Canadian Parliament was not a “hardened” target. The gunman had no difficulty getting in.
In another, totally unrelated episode, here in Washington a deranged man, (with no particular political motives), was able to climb the fence and get into the White House without being stopped by the US Secret Service, supposedly the best security service in the world.
The day after Ottawa, a man in York City used an ax to attack a group of policemen, seriously wounding one.
You cannot protect everybody, all the time
As there is danger out there, let’s review all security procedures. Let’s have better defenses. This is good. But the harsh reality is that it is simply impossible to protect “everything”, “all the time”.
As I pointed out at the beginning, we live in open societies in which people move freely. And there are other issues. In America in particular there are literally hundreds of millions of weapons available to almost anyone. Many are legally owned. Others are not. It is practically impossible to make sure that all people with bad intentions will be unable to obtain a fire arm.
Beyond that, the notion that our domestic counter terrorism forces, plus Homeland Security and various police forces will be able to prevent any and all plots and/or spontaneous “lone wolf” attacks is preposterous.
Of course, they should be on the look out. This is their job. And they will catch some bad guys before they will act. But it is unrealistic to believe that they will be successful all the time. This is impossible.
Do not give so much publicity to isolated acts of terror
Given all this, here is an idea. I suspect that most of these “self-radicalized” young people are in large measure unhappy, publicity-seeking narcissists. Sure they want to be jihadists. They want to be martyrs.
But they also want to be famous. They want their noble deed to be talked about. They want to be on TV. In a deranged way, through these crazy gestures they want to emerge from grey anonymity.
If this is indeed the case, then we have to understand that the more publicity we give to events such as the Ottawa shootings, the more we convince others that these otherwise sterile, isolated acts of violence actually produce the desired effects. The perpetrator, dead or alive, is a hero. He is a martyr. And, most of all, he is famous. Therefore, to follow his example is a really good idea.
We should just move on
If and when our societies will find a way to process these random acts of politically motivated violence and move on, calmly and without any hysteria, I suspect that there would be far fewer incentives for others to emulate these crackpots whom they believe to be “heroes” in an ongoing “just war”.