Senseless. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau picked the right word.
There wasn’t a clear lesson to learn from a tragedy in which an individual drove a van into pedestrians, killing 10. In Ottawa, where political leaders took stock a day after the tragedy in Toronto, there was no sense of a nagging query about what should have been done. The situation not only defied answers, but questions.
Mr. Trudeau found the right way to address it. Reporters asked him how Canadians could be reassured, when there seems to be no way to prevent such an attack, and the PM spoke about coming together, about mutual comfort, rather than reassurance.
“I think what we see today is a whole country that is thinking about how we can be there for each other,” he said. Canadians are thinking about Toronto and the victims’ families, he said. They can be reassured by the quality of first responders, he said, nodding to the professionalism of the police officer who calmly approached a suspect pointing an object at him and took him into custody. But there was no question of reassuring Canadians such an attack can be prevented or thwarted. The opposition had no questions about that, either.
Responding to horrific attacks has become a regular part of statecraft. Stephen Harper’s response to the 2014 shootings on Parliament Hill was, in a strange way, one of the high moments of his tenure. That attack killed a soldier on duty at the National War Memorial and rattled MPs of all parties, who huddled in their caucus rooms while an armed attacker roamed the corridors of Parliament and was shot dead. Mr. Harper’s response was both resolute and touching. He uncharacteristically hugged both Mr. Trudeau and then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and asserted that Canadians will not be intimidated.
On Tuesday, a different PM was called upon to respond in a different way, a way that suited Mr. Trudeau’s emotive strengths. This was not an attack that called for a leader to reassure Canadians they are protected, but to express national emotion. Mr. Trudeau called it a “senseless attack and a horrific tragedy,” and urged communal empathy as the salve.
In 2014, questions hung in the air even as Mr. Harper spoke. How could this happen on Parliament Hill? Does this represent a larger threat? Should security be heightened, or laws changed?
By the time Mr. Trudeau spoke at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, it seemed only unfathomable questions were left.
On the previous day, one key question about the attack loomed for the government: What is it? By 6:20 p.m., Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale answered the crucial part, from Ottawa’s perspective: It was not related to national security. It wasn’t an organized terrorist plot. It became clear the attacker was an individual, that his motivations weren’t political in the classic sense, and that the method was both shockingly bloody and disturbingly mundane.
There was no obvious question for a politician. No one can suggest a ban on renting vans.
In the Commons, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer chose the same word to describe the attack, calling it “senseless brutality,” and urging Torontonians to rally “not just in anger or in grief, but in solidarity.” Guy Caron, the NDP’s parliamentary leader, said families and friends of the victims are not alone.
And then Question Period went on in its usual, partisan way. The Conservatives asked about migrants. The NDP suggested the Trans Mountain pipeline approval process was rigged. There was hooting when Finance Minister Bill Morneau answered a question. Calgary MP Ron Liepert taunted Alberta Liberal MPs that they will not be re-elected.
The politicians didn’t see politics in the attack, and not just because it’s too soon.
That’s a good thing. Conspiracy nuts were already falsely asserting the attack was perpetrated by a “jihadist,” and Twitter trolls linked it to immigration or politicians. Canada’s elected politicians, like most Canadians, showed no interest in trying to squeeze conflict from this tragedy. It was still disquieting that they did not have anything to ask. The politicians didn’t know what to make of it, either. But they got a lot right by speaking of solidarity and mutual comfort after a senseless attack.