In Ottawa, details continue to emerge about the gunman who murdered an unarmed honour guard at the National War Memorial before penetrating Centre Block and being shot dead in front of the doors of the Library of Parliament on October 22. Early the following week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police revealed they had recovered a self-made video wherein the shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, expounds the beliefs that motivated his attack. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson did not mince his words, stating it contains evidence that the shooter was motivated by politics and ideology, that he reacted against Canadian foreign policy, and that he praised Allah.
One of Paulson’s statements, however, rings out above all the others: “He was quite lucid and quite purposeful.”
Like Martin Couture-Rouleau, who used his car to run down and kill Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec on October 20, Zehaf-Bibeau was a Muslim convert, and apparently self-radicalized. The jihadi-style photo of him with which the world has become most familiar—standing with his rifle, his lower face wrapped in a Middle Eastern scarf—was taken by a tourist, but was quickly reposted on an ISIS Twitter account.
Nonetheless, and even before the police had concluded their manhunt on the day of the shooting, some commentators began to suggest that Zehaf-Bibeau was a victim himself. He had been staying in an Ottawa homeless shelter prior to the attack, possibly mentally ill, and addicted to drugs. He had a petty criminal record, and he was estranged from his parents. In the days following the attacks, the shooter’s mother sent an open letter to the National Post, describing her son’s actions as desperate, and suggesting he had felt trapped when his passport application—made with plans to travel to the Middle East—was held up by investigation.
As such, some commentators took exception to the RCMP Commissioner’s use of ‘lucid’ and ‘purposeful.’ CBC commentator Amanda Alvaro asked how Paulson could possibly see inside the gunman’s head, suggesting Canada’s top Mountie was in no position to make such an assessment. Many are now calling for the video’s release, no doubt wishing to assess the shooter’s diatribe and facial expressions for themselves, and to continue to press the idea that Zehaf-Bibeau was marginalized, desperate, mentally ill, or some combination of the three. Their voices join the chorus of others, including that of Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, claiming that Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions did not constitute terrorism, but rather the spontaneous eruption of a tortured soul.
One might call their equivocation face insurance. A hesitancy, if not a refusal, on the part of the left to assign terrorist motives is nothing new to the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, all of which have both suffered and foiled large-scale terrorist attacks. Canada is new to the suffering, and should expect some forbearance from its allies. It is nonetheless clear, and even to those breathing the semantic fog now emanating from certain corners of Ottawa, that denial in the wake of the attack on Parliament Hill has reached embarrassing levels of absurdity.
When United States Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democrat, came to Canada on October 28, to lay a wreath at the National War Memorial commemorating Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the significance of his visit was both obvious and explicit; Canada stood in solidarity with the United States in the aftermath of September 11, and the United States stands alongside Canada now. When asked at a press conference whether the attack on Parliament Hill constituted terrorism, Kerry seemed incredulous. It’s common sense, he responded, after spelling out the details. Justin Trudeau, Leader of the Liberal Party, did not call it ‘terrorism’ until the day after Kerry’s visit, nonetheless deferring his use of the word to the conclusions of the RCMP, and not to his own judgment. It is worth noting that the same Justin Trudeau, while refusing to associate the attack with Islamic extremism, nevertheless dedicated the conclusion of his speech on the night of the attack to reassuring Muslims of Canadian tolerance.
While most media outlets in Canada continue to debate whether the attack constitutes terrorism, others, particularly Sun News Network, have been asking why it is that some people refuse to accept it. Denial, cowardice, complicity, dishonesty—all have been put forward. They have yet to suggest, despite the obvious temptation, that some liberals are themselves mentally unstable, at least in certain contexts, thereby reversing what American writer Jonah Goldberg explored in Tyranny of Clichés, where liberal academics argue that conservatism is itself a form of derangement.
There is, of course, a world of difference between dishonesty and denial. Some people seem baldly incapable of accepting what happened in Canada on October 20 and 22, and show anger only towards those who urge them to see it for what it is. Rather than continue to argue with such people, it may benefit one to consider a simple analogy, well-known in military circles. In his essay, “Sheep, Sheepdogs, and Wolves,” American author and retired soldier Dave Grossman divides society into three segments. Unlike the tripartite division of Plato’s Republic, Grossman’s is less a pyramid a more a bull’s head: two smaller classes surmount the much larger third, and face each other from opposite sides. Quoting an unnamed soldier—a retired colonel and veteran of the Vietnam War—Grossman writes:
“Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident.” […] We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. […] I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers, and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.
These predators, Grossman writes, are the wolves, and his description of them assumes the grim glamour of a fairy tale. “Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.”
As for the sheepdog—the defender—the sheep do not like him very much. “He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, can not and will not ever harm the sheep.” According to Grossman, the greatest part of the sheep’s herbivorous aggression is directed toward the sheepdog, in the therapeutic attempt to convince themselves that his strength and vigilance are groundless. Just as the everyday civilian tends to be traumatized by the sight or possibility of violence—decrying police brutality during a routine scuffle, or objecting to armed guards as though guns fire themselves—the sheep spends the year gathering wool about its eyes. “Until,” Grossman writes, “the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.”
Though not deliberately gender-specific, the analogy has been implied in cultural theories of manhood, as Harvey Mansfield presents in his book Manliness. There, he describes the Classical Greek concept of thumos (θυμός)—roughly translateable as “spirit”—in canine terms, as “bristling at something that is strange or inimical to you. Think of a dog bristling and barking; that’s a very thumotic response to a situation.”
In America Alone, American author Mark Steyn attributes the denigration of thumos to the decline of the West, arguing that men are being led to suppress their basic instincts, essentially being castrated. Incidentally, Steyn illustrates his position with reference to one of Canada’s most infamous mass shootings, the École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, where Marc Lépine ordered all the men to leave the classroom—which they did—before shooting all the women. “Whatever its other defects,” Steyn concludes, “Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.”
In confronting the shooter during the Parliament Hill attack of October 22, however, there was testosterone—and thumos—enough. Police and other emergency forces responded in seconds, unarmed Parliamentary security guards grappled with the gunman, RCMP stormed through the doors without hesitation, and the House of Commons’s own Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, shot Zehaf-Bibeau himself. Commissioner Paulson’s statement about the shooter’s deliberate mindset put crucial distance between the RCMP and those who deny Canada is under threat, while the Conservative government wasted no time in calling the attacks both terrorism and ISIS-inspired. Canada, with its national police force, rugged frontiersmanship, blue-collar gutsiness, and diligent armed forces—along with world-class elite military units—is not nearly so passive as some of its urban media darlings make it seem.
Even while Corporal Cirillo’s blood lay wet upon the stones of the National War Memorial, and as police in downtown Ottawa searched for what was at one point rumoured to be as many as five gunmen, some reporters began to muse over what sort of moment this was for Canada. Whether their self-reflection was premature, more than a week has passed, and it shows no sign of abating. One thing is certain. Only Perseus was able to face his foe while staring into a mirror.
Grossman’s sheep-sheepdog-wolf analogy is no doubt insulting to some, but it has something vital to say about the nature of denial, and offers a way of recognizing—and thus sidestepping—those people who cannot or will not face the threat of danger. Above all, he writes,
It is denial that turns people into sheep. Sheep are psychologically destroyed by combat because their only defense is denial, which is counterproductive and destructive, resulting in fear, helplessness and horror when the wolf shows up. Denial kills you twice. It kills you once, at your moment of truth when you are not physically prepared: you didn’t bring your gun, you didn’t train. Your only defense was wishful thinking. Hope is not a strategy. Denial kills you a second time because even if you do physically survive, you are psychologically shattered by your fear, helplessness, and horror at your moment of truth.
And so, in the end, it may be simply that some people cannot and will not accept that Canada was attacked by Islamic terrorists, not that they are being stubborn or dishonest. And it is unfortunate, but a mark of democracy, that some of those people occupy chairs in front of cameras, and in Parliament, and have newspaper columns which need filling.
The world is a dangerous place, and the wolves are among us.
And experience, as they say, is the biggest bitch of them all.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com/