Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Don't let fear ruin political discourse

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OTTAWA -- The images seem like something straight out of Hollywood.

A politician giving a speech is suddenly surrounded by burly security officers and hustled off the stage after a gunman opens fire.

One cannot imagine the emotional roller-coaster Quebec premier-designate Pauline Marois felt Sept. 4. After winning a minority government, she was giving her victory speech when a man, dressed in a blue bathrobe and a black balaclava, approached the back entrance of the hall where the PQ was having its election-night celebration.

Richard Henry Bain allegedly opened fire on people standing near the door, shooting two people before his gun jammed. Father and stagehand Denis Blanchette was killed. Another man was critically wounded.

When the shooter couldn't fire any more shots, he allegedly tossed a Molotov cocktail at the door, setting a fire.

It was an already tense night in Quebec, as questions of separatism underlie every election. The shooting made it that much worse.

In the aftermath of the shooting, there was blame all around. The Societé St-Jean Baptiste, an uber-nationalist Quebec group, blamed the English media for creating a climate of hatred toward the PQ that led to the shooting. Opponents of the PQ blamed Marois' extreme policies towards non-francophones for pushing the envelope too far.

It was much like the aftermath of the January 2011 Arizona massacre when 19 people were shot, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Six people were killed. After the shooting, a police officer in Arizona was the first to question whether heightened political rhetoric had pushed the shooter over the edge. In particular, people pointed to a map on former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's Facebook page that put gunsights on Democrats she was targeting politically. Giffords was among them.

Did that give a shooter with a mental illness the idea?

Police said it is not yet known whether Marois was the intended target.

No one, other than the shooter, bears any direct responsibility for this and thus far, his motives are unclear.

There is also no reason to believe this incident is anything more than isolated.

However, we would be hiding our heads in the sand if we avoided asking ourselves whether something in our political discourse did light the fuse.

The level of animosity between opposing political groups sharpens every day. One doesn't have opponents in politics. Only sworn enemies.

Compromise is a four-letter word and there is certainly no such thing as agreeing to disagree.

It may be that the persons responsible for violent attacks are deranged individuals or suffering from mental illnesses that take away logic and reason from their thought processes.

Whether the pure hatred that so clearly flows between some of our politicians and their backers is the catalyst that pushes the attackers over the edge or not, dialing it down and insisting on a more civilized approach to politics is not a bad thing.

However, it would also be wrong to take this incident as a reason to tighten the security noose around our political leaders, pushing them further and further away from the people they represent.

Each year, it seems security around our politicians tightens.

The federal government is spending $9 million this year to add new barricades on Parliament Hill. Last month, a man heading for a regular paddle on a Toronto-area river was stopped and frisked by local police because Prime Minister Stephen Harper was campaigning across the river.

In August, newly minted Manitoba Opposition Leader Brian Pallister asked Elections Manitoba for an exemption from publishing his home address in his nomination papers for security reasons. He is the first leader to request such an exemption.

But compared to the high level of security around American politicians, we are still open. Security is there but most often unobtrusive.

It's the way it should be.

The more security we are forced to bear, the more difficult it becomes for the average person to engage with elected officials, and the more difficult it is for those officials to engage with the public.

When the worst happened, the security that was in place worked well. Marois' security team acted appropriately to get her out of harm's way.

Once the threat had passed, she was able to resume her speech.

The tragedy that a man died in this incident is not to be forgotten.

But we need not worry that the bogeyman is crouching at every political rally, ready to pounce.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2012 A8

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