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A turning point? The debate on homegrown terrorists is about to begin

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, shown in this screen grab from an online video from the PMO, making a statement on the attacks in Ottawa on Wednesday Oct. 22, 2014. A gunman turned the nation's capital into an armed camp Wednesday after he fatally shot an honour guard at "point blank" range at the National War Memorial before setting his sights on Parliament Hill.

HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The prime minister's use of the word terrorism Wednesday night hardened the idea of what had happened in Ottawa, though everyone had been thinking about it all day. As he asserted that Canada will redouble its resolve at home and abroad, his tone suggested that he saw this as a turning point, a spur for action.

It's barely the aftermath of the tragedy, but there is an inevitable debate that will come from the attack that killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and terrorized Parliament and the capital. It was evident even within the addresses to the nation Wednesday night in which political-party leaders laudably avoided petty politicking and expressed solidarity. That's democracy.

Democracy will assert itself more vocally pretty quickly. MPs will be back in the Commons at 10 a.m. on Thursday, to mark loss and courage. They'll soon have real questions about how a gunman could stride into Parliament. And there will be, after two attacks in one week, a debate about homegrown terrorism, about whether fighting it will intrude on Canadians' freedoms, and about whether combating it means combat abroad.

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Mr. Harper made it clear he thinks so, as he provided an assertive response when he addressed the nation. This, he said, will make us redouble "our resolve and those of our national security agencies" to counter threats in Canada, "and work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with a hope of bringing their savagery to our shores." That came with a warning: "They will have no safe haven."

The prime minister, it appears, has identified this week's attacks as a reason to do more. His government had already cited potential dangers to Canada when it committed jet fighters and other military assets to the U.S.-led mission in Iraq against Islamic State. It has planned new powers for CSIS to stop Canadians who might want to join them. The PM suggested this week's events show there's more to do, that it's a kind of galvanizing moment.

The other party leaders, however, had a different direction. There was solidarity: NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said he stood side by side "with our prime minister, with all Canadians." But he gently suggested a different sentiment, contrary to the notion that this should change things deeply: "We woke up this morning in a country blessed by love, diversity, and peace," he said. "And tomorrow we will do the same."

Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leader, pressed the notion a little more directly, with a warning that the attacks shouldn't alter Canadians institutions and liberties. "We are a nation of justice and the rule of law. We will not be intimidated into changing that," he said.

There were, in the initial tone at least, the hint of very different attitudes to combating homegrown terrorism, and in a more conceptual sense, to whether this week's events should be seen as a turning point.

Clearly, that debate will turn around another question: the extent of the threat. The 9/11 attacks south of the border sparked a general feeling of threat that made it a turning point for security. That day, too, there were nervous police shutting streets in Ottawa, security tightened on Parliament Hill and at airports, and that was followed by new anti-terror laws and more domestic intelligence. There was a public feeling that was needed because the threat was big. Now the debate about the domestic terrorist threat is really about to begin.

There's so far been no indication that Monday's attacker in St. Jean, Quebec, Martin Couture-Rouleau, was in touch with any organization. It appears he was inspired by Islamic State, but not directed by anyone. There is already early speculation the suspect killed in Parliament Wednesday, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was similarly inspired. Are the roughly 90 others on a CSIS watch the same? Such attacks are doubly hard for intelligence services to thwart in a democracy. And there will certainly be lively debate about whether fighting abroad is a means to stop them, made sharper by the fact both opposition leaders have already opposed the Canadian mission against Islamic State.

Even if the details of this week's attacks only emerge slowly, the tone of the political debate has already emerged. For Mr. Harper, this was a week of domestic terrorism that should mark a turning point ; for Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, it's a time to be careful we don't change too much in a hurry.

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