Strength, unity and compassion in wake of tragedy in Ottawa

It is the end of a gut-wrenching week of fear, grief and anger in Canada. Corporal Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment, just 24 years old, was murdered by a deranged gunman with jihadist leanings while he stood ceremonial guard duty at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, unarmed, he was shot twice in the back by a cowardly wretch whose actions and extremism represent the opposite of everything Canada stands for.

Canadians have had several days to reflect on the events in Ottawa, and in this time of grief it brings a small measure of comfort to note that in spite of the pain and suffering caused, we as a nation have much to be proud of, both in the immediate response to the attack and what that response says about our country and its people.

1. When nearby citizens realized what had happened, they did not run for safety – they ran
toward the wounded soldier lying on the ground

Five strangers – a nurse, a lawyer, two soldiers and a former naval officer, ran to Corporal Cirillo’s side with no thought for their own safety, or where the gunman might be. They tried desperately to save him, putting compression on his wounds and administering CPR when he stopped breathing. The lawyer moved to his head and held him, telling him over and over that his family loved him, that everybody was so proud of him. There have been no public reports describing Corporal Cirillo’s condition at the time; we don’t know if he was conscious, if he heard them, if he was frightened, or if it was simply (and mercifully) over too quickly. We do know that these people did their very best to give him every aid and comfort that they could, and tried to fill his last moments with love and respect.

2. They may not be perfect, but our gun laws work

If this incident had happened in America, the gunman would almost assuredly have been armed with more than one gun, all automatic weapons, and would likely have fired at anyone who got in his way. In Canada, however, it is next to impossible for civilians to get their hands on this kind of weaponry. The gunman carried a Winchester 30-30, a common hunting rifle in Canada, which only holds 7 bullets. Video surveillance at the scene shows people scattering as the gunman ran towards the parliament buildings, rifle in hand. Yet he never tried to shoot anyone else he encountered on his way to the Parliament buildings, not even the guy driving the car he hijacked. The nature of his weapon meant he had to save his ammunition for inside, which gave the police and security the time they needed to catch up to him before he killed anyone else. If military issue guns were available for public purchase here as they are in America, it is all but certain there would be a lot more people dead and wounded.

3. Anyone who has ever negatively compared our police and military personnel to the Americans just got a big wake up call.

Generally speaking, when people think of military might, they think of America. The Canadian military, by contrast, conjures up visions of peacekeeping missions, not combat; handing out food and medical supplies, co-ordinating disaster relief efforts both home and abroad…no longer.

By all accounts, the response of Parliament Hill’s security, police and military was swift and deadly. Caught by surprise by the initial attack, in less than two minutes they were running right behind him as he stormed through Parliament’s doors, encountering a security guard who tried to wrestle the rifle away and was shot in the leg in the attempt. The gunman raced down the Hall of Honour with armed guards, police and RCMP right behind him. The video of the encounter, filmed by Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove, shows what looks like at least 15 armed personnel making their steady way down the hall, relentlessly moving closer to the column the gunman was hiding behind. There is a pause, then the roar of the rifle which is instantaneously drowned out by a barrage of gunfire. We later learned that Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers, head of security for Parliament Hill, had positioned himself on the other side of the column, the end of the gunman’s rifle only inches away. He then threw himself forward and down, twisting as he fell, directly in front of the intruder and emptied his revolver at the man, killing him. It’s a move we’ve all seen executed by the hero in Hollywood’s action movies. Mr. Vickers, a 30 year RCMP veteran and 58 years old, had reportedly never shot anyone in the line of duty in his entire career. Yet he reacted to the threat without hesitation and took out the assailant without hurting himself or anyone else. After the assailant was killed, he calmly returned to his office, reloaded his weapon, and returned to the hall to assist with the sweep, first stopping in at the caucus to calmly announce, “I have engaged the suspect. The suspect is now deceased.”

Cool heads and extensive training showed themselves in other areas of parliament as well. During the shootout our MPs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were barricaded in the caucus rooms by more security personnel, who stood at the doors between the gun battle and their charges, ready to protect them should the assailant try to enter the room. With no safe exit, one of Prime Minister Harper’s personal security members shoved him unceremoniously into a closet, keeping him hidden in case the door security was compromised. Even the MPs didn’t stand idly by; many of them fashioned spears out of the flagpoles in the room, ready to impale any intruder who breached the doors.

Once the intruder was dead, the police and military personnel instituted a 10 hour lockdown and search of the downtown core of the city to ensure there were no accomplices or bombs. After the initial hail of bullets, all three party leaders were spirited away to safe locations. No-one else was seriously hurt. A situation that could have, in different circumstances, become a bloodbath was expertly and swiftly contained.

4. Canadians won’t allow paranoia to rule their lives

When incidents like this happen, fear and suspicion often take over. Canadians can be proud of the fact that even after finding out the gunman had expressed a belief in Islamic extremism, we are not revenge targeting every Muslim in the country. On the contrary, an experiment was done by some college kids this week to test Canadian’s tolerance towards Muslims in the wake of the shooting. Pretending to harass a Muslim man (who was actually a friend of his), the director makes several Islamaphobic comments, directly confronting the man in Muslim dress. Not only did no-one agree with him or take his side, several people berated him and moved to protect the Muslim man. The experiment ended when one defender punched the director in the face. The most telling part of this experiment is that the students conducted it in Hamilton, Ontario – Corporal Cirillo’s hometown and the location of his funeral.

Canadians know that these few deranged people do not represent the true nature of Islam, and believing it so would be akin to believing that the Westboro Baptist Church speaks for all Christians.

5. We are just as patriotic as Americans – we just don’t express it until you piss us off

Canadians are a modest people and don’t generally do a lot of obvious flag-waving. To us it’s like bragging in general – it’s bad manners, and eventually people get tired of listening to you. But we are just as proud of our country, our people and our military as Americans. In fact we think we are better – which is why we don’t like being compared to Americans. It’s not an inferiority complex; we know there are many things that make life in Canada better than in America, but it’s rude to point it out.

6. We don’t celebrate criminals

Canadian reporters cover criminals and their activities of course, but we don’t glorify them with endless hours reporting on their background, their motive, their childhood, interviews with their families…endless loops of information being driven into the skulls of the general citizenry like a brainwashing exercise. If there is video of these criminals committing their atrocious acts, we don’t run them on every channel 24/7. These are details for the police to figure out; it’s their job to investigate and they will report to the Canadian people as they find their answers. To Canadians, those details are of secondary importance. When tragedy strikes, we put our focus on where it belongs – on the victims, and the heroes.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of pictures of Corporal Cirillo have been displayed over TV and the internet, showing a fit and handsome young man, a single father and dog lover; snippets of a life cut down in its prime. Thousands of Canadians have been honouring his memory and sacrifice, attending the funeral, setting up trusts for his son, sending flowers, gifts and condolences. By contrast, only two pictures of the gunman have been released, and one grainy surveillance photo of him running across the grounds, the emphasis of which was to show the speed of the security response, not to glorify a madman’s escapade. The rest of the live crime scene footage has consisted of pictures and/or video of the people frantically trying to save Corporal Cirillo, and the police and security forces moving in to take the gunman down.

There was one statement from the gunman’s mother, who wanted everyone to know she was sorry, and crying for the people hurt, not for her son, from whom she had been estranged for years. No live interview; no reporters camped out on her doorstep. Just a silent acknowledgement that she was grieving too, and courteously left alone. Perhaps in the coming days we will hear more of her, but for the past week all attention was rightly on Nathan Cirillo and his family.

For all these reasons Canadians should be proud of the way we have conducted ourselves in the wake of this tragedy, even as we continue to grieve the incomprehensible loss of this brave young man. It is a stance that does not go unnoticed; it has been commented on by American journalists that ours is a more humane and dignified way of handling a crisis.

Flags remain at half mast, but Parliament has re-opened to the public and the Honour Guard is once again standing at attention in the same place Corporal Cirillo stood so proudly nine days ago. Despite the tragedy Canadians are not in a panic. We know there will be security changes, but we want them to be modest and appropriate, not an all-encompassing blanket of fear that permanently and negatively alters our way of life. It is vitally important to us as a free nation that we be able to move freely anywhere in the country, without fear or paranoia about what might happen. To not allow the terrorists to erode the quality our lives through fear is the best way of honouring a young man who proudly stood on guard for his country, and died for it.

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