Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dear Ottawa: Don't Let Fear Change You

The scene this morning at the Canadian Parliament

This morning at least one gunman, probably at least two, opened fire on Capitol Hill in Ottawa Canada.  At least one of the soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial was injured, and US Today reports that the wounded soldier has died of his injuries.  The shooter sprinted into the Parliament building where there was more shooting.  A gunman has been confirmed dead inside Parliament.

In 2004 and 2005 I made my home outside of Ottawa.  I have many friends there.  I am a dual Canadian and US citizen.  I moved to Canada in large part out of anger at the fear driven changes in America following September 11, 2001.  I hated the evisceration of the US Constitution and the poorly planned aggression of the only country I had ever called home (I was born in Canada, but had never lived there before 2004).  I decided that I would take advantage of my Canadian citizenship and move to a country that had not abandoned its values and founding principles out of fear.

The thing that made me most happy to be in Canada while I lived there was the openness of Parliament.  Even before 9/11 the US Capitol was extremely secure.  The seat of American power is locked and walled away from the people of the US.  Walls and guards separate the White House from its subjects.  Before I moved to Ottawa it never even occurred to me that there could be a different way of doing things.  It blew me away when I moved to Canada that I could just walk right up to Parliament anytime I wanted.

Several times I decided that I wanted to walk around Parliament at night and peek in the windows, just because I lived in a country free enough to allow me to do so.  The only time security ever stopped me was when there was a light show being projected on the front of Parliament.  The guards just wanted to make sure that I didn't mess with the projection equipment, they had no problem with me poking around the Parliament building.  And yes, you read that last section right, they were having a light show on the Parliament building.  People were sitting on the Parliament lawn and listening to music and watching a light show.

.There was an openness to the Canadian Capitol that I found wonderful and liberating.  The government felt like it was of the people, not imposed on the people.  And whenever I started forgetting the dramatic nature of the difference between Canada and the US there was the nearby US Embassy to remind me.

The US Embassy in Ottawa is a post-modernist interpretation of a submarine, surrounded by neo-classical buildings and castles.  After 9/11 the US embassy blocked off a lane of traffic surrounding the building in the middle of downtown Ottawa with jersey barriers.  Inside of those Jersey barriers was a row of pylons with steel shafts that extended underground designed to stop tanks.  Inside of that row of pylons is a tall fence made of pointed metal and concrete.  The walls look to be several feet thick and the glass appears to be bulletproof, and there is no evidence of any windows that can be opened.  The entire structure is surmounted by a brooding turret.  When first I went to the embassy in 2002 there was a security checkpoint outside of the gate to the embassy.  After passing through that metal detector people were allowed one at a time to enter a door that opened on hydraulics.  After the first door closed a second actuated door would let a person out of the vestibule where they could pass through a more thorough security check like at an airport.  Once through this security I was able to go wait to speak to a representative through armored glass.

The dramatic difference between the open Parliament and the militaristic Embassy was painful to me.  In a city characterized by openness, monuments, and pretty buildings the US Embassy was fortified and designed to look like a ship of war.

Obviously I ultimately decided to move back to the US.  Despite my anger at many of the choices our country has made, I am an American.  There is a lot I love about the land of my birth, but America is my home.  I don't have to live here, I choose to live here.  I am fortunate to have the choice.

Many of the cultural differences between the US and Canada seem minor until you spend a significant amount of time in either country.  As I was living in the woods of Quebec outside of Ottawa there was one difference that seemed extra dramatic, and that was gun laws.  Where I lived there were a lot of bears.  Wherever you live in Canada you are not far from roadless wilderness.  Having grown up in Alaska, I wanted to have a gun for protection against bears.  However, in Canada the process is a lot more complicated than just going to a gun store.  I'm not going to go into the details of the process, you can look them up if you want to.

I bring up guns because today there was gun violence in Ottawa.  Sadly this means that now there is immediate reaction from pro and anti gun groups on both sides of the border.  At a time when Ottawa is still locked down and a family is being notified that their child was murdered while watching over a monument to the fallen, people are already mobilizing their political talking points.

The sad fact is that for a free country dominated by wilderness there is no sane level of gun control that could ever totally remove the threat of gun violence.  And even if guns could be totally controlled within Canada there is an open border between the US and Canada.  That said, this is an anomaly in Canada.  Canada does not have the levels of gun violence that we do here in the US, so claiming that this incident proves gun regulation to be useless is nonsensical.  I have been clear in this blog that I am a supporter of gun rights, but right now I want to be clear that I do not think that this is the time to be making arguments about gun laws.

There will be debate, but decency should compel us to have those debates at a later date.  Right now there has been an incident.  And while the death toll might not be huge, there has been a tragedy.  None of us know why this tragedy took place.  None of us know any of the details that might lead to an understanding of how or why this took place.  Now is a time to pay attention and to be quiet until we know more.

However, there is one thing I do want to say as loudly as I can right now.  Whatever might come of this tragedy, I hope that Canada will not allow the character of its capitol to change.  I hope that the fear created by this action does not lead to a separation of the government from the people of Canada.  This attack today struck at one of the most precious things Canada has, its openness.  I hope that the attack does not cost Canada that treasure.

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