What we need to remember before we forget his name

Pause is needed before using shooting as legislative boon

In an event like the shooting at Parliament in Ottawa, people like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau rightfully lose their identity. Zehaf-Bibeau became “the gunman” or “the shooter” and little more than that. Canada’s heroic Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers did not shoot Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, he shot and ended a threat to our democracy.

But now, “the gunman” is dead and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau lingers. While it’s tempting to let him die, too, we need to do our due diligence first and try to understand the murder and violence he committed.

The details of Zehaf-Bibeau’s possible motives are slowly emerging. On Sunday, Oct. 26, the RCMP released a carefully worded statement saying that he was “driven by ideological and political motives,” and that he “prepared a video recording of himself just prior to conducting this attack.” Later that evening, CBC reported that in the video, Zehaf-Bibeau references “foreign policy as motivation for his actions and that he praises Allah in the recording,” though it only cited “a source familiar with the investigation.”

But before that, it was reported that three years ago, Zehaf-Bibeau asked a B.C. judge to put him in jail to help him break the cycle of his drug addiction. In the psychological assessment that preceded his trial, he is quoted as saying “If you release me what’s going to happen again? Probably the same loop and I’m going to be right back here again,” and “I’m a crack addict and at the same time I’m a religious person… I want to sacrifice freedom and good things… so when I come out, I’ll appreciate the things of life more and be clean.”

A psychiatrist found Zehaf-Bibeau fit to stand trial and the judge agreed to detain him, even wishing him good luck in his recovery.

A person’s mental health history is pretty difficult to nail down if they never seek help through conventional means. But it’s clear that Zehaf-Bibeau did seek help and that he found himself in a desperate situation, one he likely knew he’d gotten himself into. Homelessness and drug addiction tend not to happen in a vacuum and there are reasons why mental illness is so common among street people.

So how does this explain the high profile murder and violence he committed in Ottawa? I don’t think it does – at least not directly. Mentally ill or not, it’s clear that Zehaf-Bibeau was a vulnerable person on the margins of our society, and now it appears that he was later radicalized; he was pushed to the edge of his religion and then outside of it into extremism.

Radical Islamism is very much something we have externalized. When the news of the shooting first broke, our inclination was to look at where he came from and why. He didn’t come from anywhere – he was born in Canada. It became increasingly difficult to externalize Zehaf-Bibeau and his actions and we all grew more and more uncomfortable with the story.

If Zehaf-Bibeau had turned out to just be a run-of-the-mill terrorist, it would have been much more convenient, especially to those looking to pass legislation in the wake of the shooting.

There’s cause for reservation in doing so. On Friday, Oct. 24, just two days after the shooting, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body that oversees CSIS, tabled its report criticizing the spy agency for its delays and misleading behaviour.

The timing of the report is crucial, since it comes just before the government is expected to table legislation that expands CSIS powers in tracking suspects abroad.

On Monday, the government tabled Bill C-44, or known by its more defensible name, the “Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act.” Who would ever oppose a bill with a name like that, especially after what the country has been through?

If Zehaf-Bibeau’s acts of murder and violence are going to be used for any political purpose, why not better advocacy for mental health and drug abuse?