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That’s what he said: it caught them by surprise.
That’s what RCMP Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud actually said at a shambles of a press conference on Wednesday, looking feckless and useless: the attack on Parliament Hill – the murder of Corporal Nathan Cirillo – “caught us by surprise.”
It caught them by surprise, despite the fact that the killer – a nobody, a pathetic loser who does not now deserve the buckets of ink being spilled about him – had previously been prevented from obtaining a Canadian passport, because federal officials regarded him as a potential terrorist.
It caught them by surprise, despite the fact that an ISIS-linked Twitter account yesterday somehow made available a photograph of the killer holding a rifle and wearing a keffiyeh. Despite the fact that he had had a string of criminal convictions, some violent, stretching back more than a decade.
Despite the fact that, two years ago, Public Works spent $9 million to buy new blockades for Parliament Hill. And an engineering firm was paid more than $1.5 million to design the barricades.
Despite the fact that, after a Greenpeace protest thoroughly embarrassed them in 2011, the RCMP spent an extra $6.6 million to boost security.
Despite the fact that the RCMP’s Parliament Hill detachment were issued 9mm semi-automatic pistols, and even issued Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns, to be carried in their cruisers as a secondary weapon.
Despite the fact that there are concrete blocks, and removable fences, and chains and metal detectors and cameras – hundreds and hundreds of fancy cameras – all over Parliament Hill. Despite the fact that there are no less than four police forces, and thousands of officers (some of them trained snipers), with joint responsibility for keeping Parliament Hill safe.
This all happened – the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed soldier at the War Memorial, the storming of Parliament Hill by a religious extremist who was mere feet from the Prime Minister and his cabinet – despite all that was already known about the killer. Despite all the money that has been spent to render Parliament Hill a fortress. Despite all those cops who are up there.
Are many of us angry about the extraordinary events of the past week? Damn right we are. But not just because two CAF members – two good, decent men – lost their lives needlessly. We’re angry because these things like this keep happening at the location of our democracy itself. And because the RCMP brass, and the other so-called security experts, seem completely incapable of dealing with any of it.
Let me give you a personal example.
On April 7, 1989, I was the police beat guy at the Ottawa Citizen. I got word that terrorists were storming Parliament Hill, so I raced up there with my pens and notepad.
A Greyhound bus that had been hijacked in Montreal – and which several police forces had literally lost track of, somewhere between Montreal and Ottawa – was mired in the Spring mud on Parliament’s lawn. As I stood between the Centennial flame and the bus, I heard a sound. Then another.
A cop ran over to me. “Get the f**k out of here!” he yelled, crouched down. “That was a bullet going over your head! Get out of here!”
So I did. Ran into a building across the street, holed up in the office of a Senator I knew, and called the desk. CNN wanted to speak to me, they said, so I did.
The hijacker, turned out, was a Lebanese guy named Charles Yacoub, and he was upset about something in the Middle East. So he decided to hijack the bus at gun point, get to Parliament Hill, and fire off shots at American tourists (and me, apparently) when he got there.
After an eight-hour standoff, and after I got out of the Senator’s office, I spoke to some of the dozens of RCMP officers milling about in front of Parliament. Here’s what one of them said to me:
“We are never going to let something like this happen again.”
That’s what he said.
Actually, wait. If you don’t come, I will talk at you incessantly, without pause.
That will motivate you better, I suspect.
The murder of the CAF member in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu by an avowed ISIS sympathizer had political implications, and within minutes. Yesterday, the Prime Minister stood in the House of Commons to speak about the terrible event – even before the rest of us knew it had happened – and explicitly linked it to terrorism.
“The individual who struck the two CAF members (Canadian Armed Forces) with his car is known to federal authorities, including the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team,” PMO later said in a written statement issued Monday evening. “Federal authorities have confirmed that there are clear indications that the individual had become radicalized.”
All that may be true, but all of us should be profoundly uncomfortable that any politician would be speaking about this tragedy – and assigning motive – before the police. That is not the way our system works. And it raises the distinct possibility that Harper and his advisors are willing to reduce a soldier’s death to a talking point.
If that’s true, then we are piloting through some very dangerous waters, indeed. In the aftermath of the (strikingly similar) May 2013 murder of British Army soldier, Fusilier Drummer Lee Rigby of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, British public opinion became dangerously inflamed.
English hate groups, like the English Defence League (which, by the by, is partnered with the Jewish Defence League here in Canada) used Rigby’s murder to whip up support. There were riots and violent street clashes, and dozens of arrests. Anti-Muslim sentiment exploded.
The Prime Minister and his government have a responsibility to (a) let the police do their job (b) ensure public opinion isn’t needlessly inflamed (c) resist the temptation to politicize a soldier’s death.
Will they do any of those things? Don’t hold your breath.
As someone once said, we live in dangerous times.
Evan Solomon will be there, and he may speak to you!