If there is one lesson to be learned from last Wednesday’s tragic incident in the nation’s capital, it is that social media now permits us to terrorize ourselves into mass hysteria.
The facts as we now know them are fairly straightforward. At approximately 9:52 a.m., Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — a career criminal and drug addict — approached the National War Memorial. With a Winchester .30-30 lever-action rifle, he shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo twice in the back. A member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, based in Hamilton, Ontario, Cirillo was part of a ceremonial guard standing watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Although they carry rifles, Cirillo and his comrades do not have ammunition and are thus, essentially, unarmed.
After shooting Cirillo, Zehaf-Bibeau made a crazed dash towards Parliament Hill, where he entered Centre Block after an exchange of gunfire with security guards. Upon entering the building, Zehaf-Bibeau was quickly trapped by security guards outside the Library of Parliament, where he was shot and killed by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers. The total time elapsed between the first shooting and what should have been the end of the crisis, Zehaf-Bibeau’s death, was less than three minutes.
However, the shock of the killings and the sound of gunfire throughout the Parliament Buildings lit up the Twittersphere and, in turn, fired up the mainstream media machine. All media outlets went to live news coverage with reporters simply repeating every snippet of unfiltered information they could glean from the Twitter and Facebook posts emanating from eyewitnesses and bystanders. They were also monitoring other media sources to see what they were reporting, and then repeated it with no independent verification. For instance, some outlets claimed there was a second gunman, while another reported a second body behind the Library of Parliament.
The widely reported eyewitness accounts sent the police searching for at least one, possibly two additional gunmen believed to be accomplices of the dead Zehaf-Bibeau. In one instance, an additional burst of gunfire was being reported before a calmer head explained to the startled journalist that the noise was in reality coming from a nearby construction site.
Believing they were seeking gunmen still on the loose, security forces set up checkpoints across the bridges between Ottawa and Gatineau, Quebec. Traffic through the downtown core was halted, and frightened government officials ordered their departments to go into a full lockdown. Civil servants were not allowed down to the food courts to purchase their lunches, being forced to stay inside their office buildings.
An erroneous report of a high-speed police chase down the Queensway (the main highway through Ottawa) set off panic throughout the entire capital. Schools in the suburbs, tens of kilometres from Parliament Hill, went into lockdown. By mid-afternoon, with the city paralyzed and the citizenry believing themselves to be under a full-scale siege by ISIS terrorists, the decision was made to cancel that evening’s scheduled NHL hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the hometown Ottawa Senators.
Many of the workers on Parliament Hill and in nearby government buildings were not released from the security lockdown until 9 p.m. Ottawa news reports on Wednesday night predicted that the city “will never be the same,” while across the country, pundits declared this “terror attack” to be the “loss of innocence” for our nation.
Of course, all these pronouncements were made at the height of the media circus that was circulating an endless stream of false information. There were no other gunmen, therefore this was not some masterful terror plot. Zehaf-Bibeau acted alone; he was a low-life, deranged drug addict who had been denied a passport. The fact that he had converted to Islam has less to do with his radicalization than his lifetime spent within the criminal fringes of society. He took the life of a proud soldier and then achieved international notoriety with his ‘death by cop’ solo charge into the Parliament Buildings. His rebellion against authority is nothing new.
On March 3, 2005, James Roszko shot and killed four Mounties on his farm in Mayerthorpe, Alberta; on June 4 of this year, Justin Bourque shot and killed three Mounties and severely injured two others during his rampage in Moncton, New Brunswick. The only difference in this latest case is that Zehaf-Bibeau was described as a radicalized Muslim, which then caused a linkage to ISIS (even though he never joined that organization) and, of course, we are all petrified of ISIS.
Once the smoke cleared, it became evident that Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was nowhere near as terrifying as our imaginations made it out to be, thanks to social media.
Note: I wish to extend my sincerest condolences to the family, friends, and comrades of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. We shall remember them.