As I write this, we still have very little idea what happened in Ottawa. We know one man is dead. He was a soldier, a reservist, standing guard over our national memorial to his forbears. We know shots were fired inside the Parliament Building, the seat of our national government. We know that the gunman is dead, but despite new reports he had made a video which may provide insight into his motives, we don’t yet know how much of him was ideology and how much madness.
Arriving home, I scrolled down through my Facebook feed, and found most of the spectrum of human emotion. From friends in Ottawa, I found concern, attempts to assure their family and friends—in Newfoundland, Labrador, and elsewhere—that they were fine and updating them on what was happening. From friends with loved ones in the forces, I saw condolences tinged with fear. Their loved ones are safe, but that might not have been the case. From some, worry that this represented a changed, radicalized Canada. From others, worry that this would change Canada, Americanize us, turn us fearful.
Fear is an ordinary part of the human experience, one of our most basic emotions. Fear keeps us safe. Fear lets know when something might be dangerous. Fear is a rational, appropriate response to the unknown. But fear can be a problem. Fear can be manipulated. Fear can be irrational. Fear can paralyze us when we should be moving, and move us when we should stand still.
The overwhelming worry is that this will be turn us into a less open, less trusting, less democratic country. The worry is that there are those—some of whom are in power—who would use this shock to ensure that we’re voting and acting from a place of fear.
Fear is a problem in politics. When we act from fear, we act from our self-interest. We do not build collective institutions. We do not trust each other. We do not make long term plans.
The most important public policy debates of the 21st century require us to trust each other and to think of the long term.
Now, more than ever, we need not to be acting from a place of fear. The most important public policy debates of the 21st century require us to trust each other and to think of the long term. The right to privacy requires that we not know what other people are doing. Programs to ensure we’re better able to take care of our children and our environment need us to act together, not separately. And the financial reforms that need to happen to ensure the continued survival of our social safety net will require sacrifices from everyone. None of these advances can happen without trust.
But I, for one, think these worries are overstated. This was no Reichstag Fire. This was no 9/11. The Harper Government, for all its problems, is not the Bush Administration. The Conservatives are not Nazis. And we are neither America nor Weimar Germany.
I say this even as the government prepares legislation giving more powers to Canada’s spy agencies and to the RCMP, which may make me seem naïve. My confidence remains in two ways. While the Americans adopted the horrendously named Patriot Act with virtually no debate or dissent, any efforts to unreasonably expand police powers in Canada will not be done quietly or with the acquiescence of all parties. Unlike our neighbours, we remain a functioning democracy. Furthermore, we remain a constitutional democracy, and if the laws passed can’t be justified in a free and democratic society, our Supreme Court will not hesitate to strike them down.
Though my main source of confidence is cultural rather than institutional. Life in Ottawa is returning to normal. Life elsewhere in Canada has barely changed. This was a reminder that we’re a part of the world, and that there are people who will find any excuse for violence. For one family, this was a tragedy. It could have been worse, and worse may yet come. But we’re a reasonable people, a calm people. Despite some evidence to the contrary blown out of proportion by social media, we do not scare so easily.
So while there are things I’m afraid of, even now, neither future terrorist attacks nor their abuse by politicians are among them.
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