Carry On

One writes in order to try to force the universe to make sense. Others shoot for much the same reason. They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but that’s a difficult proposition to maintain in the face of a hail of bullets. Still, one must fight with what weapon one can wield. It might be a bad idea to bring a keyboard to a gunfight, but having brought one, it’s too late to change one’s mind. So one writes, even at the risk of missing the mark.

On a somewhat similar occasion some years ago, I quoted Albert Camus who, in the closing paragraph of The Plague, warned that “the plague microbe never dies nor disappears; that it can for decades sleep in furniture or linen, trunks, kerchiefs, or papers; and that, perhaps, the day would come when, to visit woe upon mankind and instruct it, the plague would awake its rats and send them to die in a happy city.” That day came, once again, yesterday.

It is tempting to ask why, and we will surely have no shortage of people not only asking but also answering that question. Some are already busy at it, and I will say something about that presently. But first things first. Camus’s lesson, I think, is that the important question is not why, but what ― what one does when the rats are out.

One could hardly answer that question better than Ottawa did yesterday: with the fearlessness of Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers who stopped the murderer; with the courage of the journalists who filmed while the shots were being fired; with the calm of the MPs who spoke to the world’s media from their locked down offices; with the resolve of the party leaders who addressed the country last night; above all with the quiet, level-headed dignity of the citizens. Ottawa friends, I admire you. It is perhaps too bad that we don’t always see such courage, calm, resolve, and dignity. But let’s leave it to another day to muse on why people who can act admirably in the most adverse of circumstances so often fail to do so when it should be easier. There is something to be said for being at one’s best when things are at their worst.

So much for the most important question. I will return to the second most important one, what to do going forward, shortly. But although these two should be enough, they somehow never are. The why question, fruitless though it usually is, keeps nagging at us. (Camus noticed that too, elsewhere, writing that though the world might be meaningless, human beings were not, precisely because they demand meaning.)

Already we have some ready-made answers to the why question. Let me address one, brought to us by Gleen Greenwald, who seems to think that he enlightens us by proclaiming that “it’s not the slightest bit surprising or difficult to understand why people who identify with those on the other end of Canadian bombs and bullets would decide to attack the military responsible for that violence.” We’ve been fighting wars for 13 years, and had it coming. Mr. Greenwald wrote that in response to the murder of a soldier in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu on Monday, but of course this purported explanation ought to be no less applicable to yesterday’s rampage, which we now know was also the work of a self-made Islamist fanatic.

The trouble with Mr. Greenwald’s explanation is not even so much that it is callous, though it is that, too. He thinks that “one’s views on the justifiability of Canada’s lengthy military actions” are irrelevant here, but they are not. If Canada’s fight against the Taliban is justified ― and it is, both the reasons that got it started in the first place and by the UN’s and subsequently Afghanistan’s approval ― then his explanation is no different from pointing out that a rape victim’s skirt was shorter than it might have been. The problem is ― just like that statement ― this explanation explains nothing at all. The question for us is not why “people who identify with those on the other end of Canadian bombs and bullets would decide to attack” those they hold responsible. It is, why do Canadian citizens identify with the Taliban and IS?

Mr. Greenwald dismisses the explanation famously given by George W. Bush, who said that Taliban & Co. “hate us for our freedoms.” But, for what little my view is worth, I think that, although “hate” is not quite the right word here, President Bush was ― wittingly or not ― onto rather more than the pseudo-cognoscenti of Mr. Greenwald’s ilk allow.

It’s not quite that the Canadians who murder Canadian soldiers, or the Frenchmen who kill their Jewish compatriots, or the Americans who run off to Syria to join IS “hate our freedoms” which are also theirs. It’s that they are afraid of these freedoms. For only abject fear can cause a man to lash out in senseless, futile violence like that which we saw yesterday ― fear of the way in which what free people will choose to live their lives, and fear of the responsibilities that come with being a member of a free society.

Those whom these twin fears drive to despair will try to destroy its source. The banner under which he does it is comparatively unimportant, even accidental. Radical Islamism is the murderous ideology du jour, but there have been and are others, which have caused their adherents to act in much the same ways. There was the separatism of the FLQ and left-wing craze of the Red Brigades and the RFA; there was the anti-separatism of Denis Lortie and the right-wing paranoia of a Timothy McVeigh or an Anders Breivik. Canadian intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq stands in exactly the same relation to the murders of Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo as multiculturalism to that of 77 Norwegians on July 22, 2011. The murderers, and Mr. Greenwald, can call it causation if they so wish. We do not have to.

What should we do though, going forward? Well, I’d say we’re off to a good start already. It may usually be the case that liberty is in danger whenever Congress is in session, but Parliament sitting today is in fact a first, manifest example of our liberty. I dearly hope that, whatever revisions there may be to its security protocols, it will still be open to visitors, and its lawn keeps hosting sound and light shows, yoga sessions, protests, and whatever other activities take place there. Beyond that, let us take example from the people of Ottawa yesterday: they did not lose their heads then; there is no reason for us to do so now. Those of us who fight on our behalf, and to whom I am more grateful than ever today, will go on fighting. Those who write will keep writing; if it doesn’t make sense of the world, at least it is a way of claiming our freedom. Whatever we do, we should simply keep calm and carry on.

P.S. Andrew Coyne and especially Aaron Wherry are much more eloquent than I. And Mr. Wherry also asks that “please, somehow, someway, let there be yoga again on the lawn. And Frisbees and protests and light shows in the summer.”

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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