On visiting (another) parliament in the wake of a murderous attack

By Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich Gulf Islands, Leader of the Green Party of Canada

Sudden attacks on innocent people are not a new phenomenon. There is a tendency to say “this changes everything.” Sometimes it is true, as in the 9-11 attacks.  Sometimes it feels true because our memories are short.  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II must have a long memory giving deep perspective.  The killings of innocents in the “troubles” with Northern Ireland, particularly the murder of Lord Mountbatten, must still feel recent.  Someone plowing his car into pedestrians will not feel like an event that changed everything.

Maybe that is why the flag over Buckingham Palace was at full staff on Sunday. I was startled to see it flying with no sign of mourning. Then I started noticing that the flags all around London were not at half-mast. That was only one of the obvious differences between how our societies and our parliaments responded.  There was no moment of silence in the British Parliament for those who had died until Wednesday March 29 – five days after the murders.   In fact, when I attended proceedings in the Commons and the House of Lords on Monday, the business of the day proceeded without reference to the events of the past Thursday. In the House, the bus bill was debated, with Speaker Bercow in high spirits, chiding one member for being a “cheeky fellow.” In the House of Lords, a stately debate proceeded on preparedness for a cruise ship calamity at sea.

Is it the famous stiff, upper lip? I thought the public mourning over Diana had ended the British reserve in grief sharing.

The public and media reactions were more similar to Canada’s.  The flowers are piled up outside Westminster and at every spot along the Westminster Bridge. The hourly news continues to focus on updates about the killer and his family, as well as those killed and their families.

The similarities in the events themselves are striking.  Many aspects of the October 22, 2014 Ottawa event and the March 22, 2017 London attack are parallel.

In both cases, the parliament was full of MPs and staff.  We were both in lock-down. I compared notes with my colleague, the Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, the only Green Party peer. Despite the grand title, she says cheerfully, “Call me Jenny” as she greets all and sundry.  She shepherded me through the Peers’ entrance, pointing out luminaries – the peer who wrote House of Cards, Lord Michael Dobbs, and later over tea, musician Brian May of Queen – not the regal one.  (May is keen on stopping the badger cull).

Jenny shared her photo of the hundreds of peers, MPs and staff held in the 1000 year old Hall of Westminster – built by the son of William the Conqueror.  The British Parliament was in lock down for 5 hours. Jenny sympathized with our experience of being in lock down for twice as long.

In both instances, only one person was involved. No accomplices or links to organized terrorist cells appears to exist.  In both cases, the seat of government was the target. Although for long memory, neither rivals the Gunpowder Plot.

In both cases, an unarmed and magnificent public officer was killed.  Both men, Cpl Nathan Cirillo and PC Keith Palmer, were more accustomed to posing for photos with tourists than facing an armed intruder.  Far more people were killed and injured in London than Ottawa due to the killer having the funds to rent an SUV.  Lack of funds alone restricted the Ottawa killer to a used car. In both cases, the horrific tragedy is acknowledged as one that could have been far worse. Thank heavens neither man had access to the kind of semi-automatic killing machine that mass murderers have had in attacks in the US.

The killer in London was equipped with an SUV and a knife. Murderous enough to kill four people and injure far more. He was a violent man with a criminal history.  None of it was political or religiously motivated – until March 22. He was allegedly radicalized in prison.  It is clear that for both killers, if prison services focused on this risk, the tragedies might have been averted.  Certainly in the case of the Ottawa killer, he was desperate enough for mental health and addiction counselling that he got himself arrested and begged a Vancouver judge to get him help.

Was this terrorism?  Was the murder of the wonderful British Labour MP Jo Cox a terrorist attack? If one is, then why not the other?

The Speaker of the UK Parliament has announced two separate inquiries.  They are to be conducted by independent security experts. The results will be public.  And there is the biggest difference: transparency.

Canada had no public inquiry. We still need one. Changes to consolidate security services under the RCMP were hasty, violating centuries of respect for the principle that the government should never control security for the country’s parliament.  Our guardian, former Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, was packed off to Ireland to keep him from making a fuss about it.

It’s not too late to demand an inquiry.  Memories are particularly short, and history more likely to repeat itself, when we refuse to examine and learn from experience.

(Author’s note: I know the names of those who committed the murders, but as a matter of personal policy, I refer only to those who were murdered by name.)

Elizabeth May, O.C., Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is in the UK for the, once every four years, Global Greens Congress opening March 30 in Liverpool.