Saturday, October 25, 2014

Attack on Ottawa: "changed, changed utterly"?

Jonathan Kay: Did one man’s attack on Parliament really change Canada ‘forever’?

| | Last Updated: Oct 25 2:30 AM ET

Police guard the Canadian Parliament one day after gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau infiltrated the building before being shot dead.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images  Police guard the Canadian Parliament one day after gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau infiltrated the building before being shot dead

‘Our world has changed forever today and we don’t even know yet how much,” Canadian Senator Fabian Manning declared on Wednesday, after a shootout in the heart of Canada’s Parliament buildings, which ended with the death of rampaging gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. In an editorial entitled “The End of Innocence,” the Calgary Herald solemnly declared that “Canada will never be the same again.” “Just as America changed the moment the planes hit the Twin Towers, Canada was forever altered the moment Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was struck down [by Zehaf-Bibeau],” wrote Susan Clairmont of the Hamilton Spectator. “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.”

Is all this true? Are we indeed living in a dangerous new era in which the desecration of public spaces by bullets and blood becomes a part of daily life? The promiscuous use of phrases such as “loss of innocence” and “new normal,” as well as the nation’s generally traumatized state this past week, suggest that many Canadians believe we indeed have undergone a massive and terrifying shift.
But the quantitative evidence for this is shaky — non-existent, really. The two Canadian men killed by Islamist-inspired terrorists this week were the first domestic terror casualties since 9/11. Put another way: In a single spasm of random evil, Justin Bourque produced more deaths in Moncton (three) than Islamism has yielded in all of Canada in the 13 years since 9/11. And despite the fact many Canadians worry incessantly about violent crime — not to mention spectacular but obscure threats such as Ebola and religiously motivated terrorism — our society actually has become much safer in recent decades.

In response to the Angus Reid Global survey question “In the past two years, have you yourself been a victim of crime which involved the police?” 25% of respondents answered yes in 1994; 13% in 2012; 9% in 2014. This is part of a worldwide trend. According to data presented at the University of Cambridge last month, “nations as diverse as Estonia, Hong Kong, South Africa, Poland, and Russia have seen average recorded homicide rates drop by 40% or more in the course of just 15 years.” So why do so many of us feel such a sense of fear and dread so much of the time? One theory, enunciated by countless experts, is that the ultrasafe nature of our society hasn’t extinguished our baseline level of anxiety: It simply has rendered it dormant, ready to awaken the moment some shocking stimulus (such as even a small-scale terrorist attack) jolts our brains.

Moreover, our capacity for psychologically processing human tragedy has been systematically degraded in recent generations, because so many of us go through much of our lives without experiencing any real loss. In my grandfather’s youth, it was not an unusual thing for mothers to lose one or even several infants to disease. The wars that were fought during his lifetime ground through tens of millions of human bodies. These days, on the other hand, an insane man with a dim knowledge of Islam runs screaming into Parliament with a gun and everyone suddenly declares that we are at “war.” Winnowed to nothingness by our hair-trigger sensitivities, the very word has lost all meaning.

There is another factor, too: the power of video. Literature and the spoken word can be used to bombard people with facts and arguments. But only video can transport us wholesale into a world of horror — short-circuiting our rational side, and hitting our emotional core. ISIS, surely, understands this: With just a few beheading videos, it was able to taunt the world’s most powerful nation into a new Iraq war. (The gambit seems to have turned out poorly for ISIS, but at least they get to issue the ever-popular jihadi boast that they are directly confronting the Great Satan.)

On Wednesday morning, everyone in Canada was talking about the events at Parliament Hill. But more than taking in the news by reading and listening, we were watching — focusing our attention on a short but shocking cellphone video of the moments when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was taken down in the corridors of Parliament. It’s that video that my journalistic colleagues had in their mind when they wrote those soaring accounts of “lost innocence.”

Video does that to you: It takes you directly to the fear place inside your mind. And I think it’s largely because of video imagery — heads sawed off, planes flying into buildings, suicide bombs — that so many of us have convinced ourselves that we are living in some kind of fin-de-siècle dystopia. Without the advent of YouTube and the spread of cellphone cameras in the last decade, I doubt we would be nearly as agitated about terrorism.

In Friday’s edition of the National Post, I wrote an article comparing this week’s attack on Parliament with a very similar attack in May, 1984, when a mentally ill soldier named Denis Lortie stormed Quebec’s legislative building and killed three people before being convinced to surrender by the heroic Sergeant-at-Arms, René Jalbert. I was 15 and living in Montreal when that happened. It was a terrible event — but I don’t remember people claiming that the world as we knew it had been transformed in some existential way. It was treated as a deadly crime in an important public space, and it dominated the news for a few days, but then life moved on, as it must.

As it happens, Lortie’s invasion of the legislative building, and Jalbert’s heroic intervention, were recorded on a fixed-mounted video camera. You can see the whole thing below. But that video was released to the public only after the passage of a full year. That was the way things were done back then: Such shocking images were reserved first for police inquiries, court proceedings and only eventually (as in this case) CBC documentaries. By the time the public saw it, the first bloom of the event’s terror already was dead.

This week, by contrast, the video was uploaded to the whole world within minutes. We took in the fear before we could process the facts. And therein lies the source of so much of our anxiety.