Once upon a time, a mace was a blunt weapon to hit people with. The kings of England and later the speakers of the House of Commons had sergeants-at-arms carrying large maces to protect them.
Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, routinely carries the ceremonial mace into the House as a symbol of authority. On Wednesday, in extraordinary circumstances, Mr. Vickers and his colleagues rightly and capably used weapons somewhat more modern and effective than a mace – guns.
Few Canadians, even very few police officers, have any occasion to shoot and kill another human being. Abundant justification to do so does not make it an easy thing for most of us to do. Mr. Vickers and others were prompt and effective in ending the life of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Who knows how many lives they saved?
Of course, the Parliament Buildings need security staff, but such emergencies as occurred on Wednesday are outlier events. Readiness is all, said Hamlet; Mr. Vickers and company were ready.
He richly deserved the prolonged standing ovation he received in the House of Commons on Thursday, and the thanks of a long procession of MPs thereafter. He looked stoically moved (if that is not a contradiction in terms).
Very properly, rather than lapping up praise, Mr. Vickers issued a statement saying he was "touched by the attention" but gave full credit to the whole "remarkable security team," which "demonstrated professionalism and courage."
Mr. Vickers let down his guard slightly after Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, suggested in the House that he should take a fishing holiday on the Miramichi River (his home region), to which he responded with a thumbs-up gesture.
Such a magnificent sergeant-at-arms is not unique in Canada. In 1984, René Marc Jalbert, who held that office in the National Assembly of Quebec, managed to calm down and persuade Denis Lortie, a mentally ill person who wanted to kill René Lévesque, the premier, to surrender – though unfortunately Mr. Lortie had already killed three people and wounded more.
"Take away that foolish bauble, the mace," said Oliver Cromwell in 1653, when he dismissed the Parliament of England for an indefinite period, in the short-lived English republic.
This week, Mr. Vickers illustrated the vital link between a symbolic "bauble" and lethal force.