Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on intelligence and national security issues.
The unbelievable has happened. A soldier on ceremonial duty at the National War Memorial was shot and killed on Wednesday; the Centre Block of Parliament Hill was stormed by a gunman; downtown Ottawa spent the day in lockdown. These terrible events came hard on the heels of a terror attack that targeted two military personnel in Quebec on Monday, killing one.
The country reeled while questions piled up. Before this week, the Canadian notion might have been that it couldn't happen here. Now, it has, and it's left to us to make sense of these incidents and decide on a response. Should it be tough new legislation? More intrusive surveillance? Walling off Parliament? Greater security measures at government facilities? The list of potential measures is long. What these events really suggest is that we should take a deep breath, while mourning the loss of two soldiers.
Monday's attack in Quebec was the culmination of the radicalization of Martin Couture-Rouleau, a 25-year-old native Quebecker. It was also the culmination of a failed RCMP effort to monitor and contain Mr. Couture-Rouleau, who like the Ottawa attacker was reportedly known to authorities. His file was one of 90 ongoing terrorism investigations, and the big question that remains is whether opportunities were missed to prevent his attack. This will be the subject of many questions in Quebec, from which the public and authorities should draw lessons.
At the same time, Canadians have to appreciate that not all such attacks can be prevented, and that we may have luxuriated in unrealistic expectations about being absolutely safe. As the Irish Republican Army once taunted British security agencies, in an earlier age of terrorism: "You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once." In some unknowable way, Canada has been both lucky and good at foiling violent plots. But this week, our luck, or our professional capacity – or both – came up short.
If a 100-per-cent counterterrorism success rate is unrealistic, what is the appropriate expectation? It can't be quantified, but it is that our intelligence and security agencies should work to their maximum ability and that all available opportunities, under the law, to develop intelligence and prevent attacks must be realized. Real opportunities to foil plots and make arrests simply cannot be missed. The question raised this week is whether opportunities were missed or intelligence was left undeveloped. Was there an intelligence failure? Honest and open answers will have to be found, and quickly.
The discussion will include resource issues – do we have enough to do the job? This is also hard to quantify, but it has to be asked, not least in the context of significant but largely unexamined changes to the internal organization of federal policing undertaken over the past couple of years by the RCMP. Fears were raised that this reorganization might lessen, rather than concentrate, resources for national security work by the Mounties. Now we will really need to find out. We will also need to ask whether our threat focus was wrong. The recent preoccupation in Canadian counterterrorism work has been on trying to prevent Canadians from engaging in terrorism overseas and then returning from such campaigns. Maybe we were too preoccupied with this and underplayed the threat of homegrown terrorism.
What this week's events demand is a public inquiry – to learn lessons, to take whatever corrective action may be required and to provide a trusted form of reassurance, distanced from political messaging, about Canadian counterterrorism capabilities
But the public should not be passive onlookers. The consistent messaging from countries more accustomed to such attacks revolves around a key ingredient: societal resilience. Democratic societies must not get bent out of shape – restoration of normalcy and confidence that ordinary life can continue is key to moving forward and avoiding responses that we may later regret. Catch the perpetrators, apply our tough existing legal sanctions, mourn the victims, learn the lessons, improve and refocus our intelligence efforts, but take a deep breath and practise normalcy. That's the best response.