The Nova Scotia massacre – more questions than answers

The mass shootings in Nova Scotia on April 19 and 20 have led to many questions on the motives behind the massacre, questions that may go unanswered.

When a mass shooting takes place we all want answers ASAP: alas, sometimes we won’t get them.

This contribution was published in The Ottawa Citizen on April 20, 2020

PORTAPIQUE, NOVA SCOTIA — I don’t know about you but I have been getting sick of all the reporting on COVID-19 these weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not dismissing the importance of this pandemic nor the best practices to follow but it seems to be all coronavirus all the time, doesn’t it?

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for.

We are reeling today in the aftermath of the massacre in Nova Scotia over the weekend. 18 are dead, including an RCMP officer, an elementary teacher, two nurses and others, in addition to the alleged gunman, a 51-year old denturist. More bodies may still be found as several homes appear to be have been torched, possibly by the assailant.

As in all cases like these the predominant question is: why? Why would someone do something like this? Why would a man ruin so many lives and leave a trail of mourning and suffering in the wake of his murderous spree? Why do crimes of this scale happen periodically in Canada (the fact they occur less frequently than in our neighbour to the south is of little solace today)?

The unfortunate truth is that we may never get a complete answer to ‘why’? The killer is dead and cannot therefore provide insight into his motives. Unless he left behind some rationale – something he said to someone in recent days, a social media post, or, in the best case scenario, a ‘manifesto’ of sorts – we may struggle to understand the mindset of the assassin. This would prove to be frustrating to all, not just the families of the victims. We simply NEED to know why.

It bears emphasising that the RCMP investigation into these killings is just underway. There are multiple crime scenes to secure and sift through for evidence. The murders happened over a 50-km span of central Nova Scotia. All this will take time and resources, in a period of perhaps a stretched police service that must deal with COVID-19 as well.

Nevertheless, there are already those acting as Monday morning quarterbacks, weighing in, often with no actual access to information, on what happened and why. From what I have read so far, we have learned that:

  • The gunman was ‘bullied’ in high school
  • He was a successful denturist but his business had been hit hard by the province-mandated physical isolation requirements
  • He was an RCMP aficionado who liked to refurbish police vehicles
  • There may have been a broken relationship thrown into the mix

All of this is of some interest but far from an ‘explanation’ for his actions. Let me go through them one by one:

  • Who was NOT bullied in high school or saw that particular period as stressful?
  • How many other business owners have been negatively affected by COVID-19 without going after random citizens?
  • The obsession with police would explain why he appeared to be wearing a uniform but if he were a frustrated law enforcement wannabe would he not have targeted real cops?
  • We have all been through relationships that failed: this is not a sufficient condition for going on a shooting rampage.

At the end of it all we are complex beings. We are the amalgam of our DNA, our family relationships, our interaction with friends and co-workers, and the events that surround us. Attempting to establish ONE aspect that is determinative in nature is a fool’s errand in my view.

Moving forward, as a former CSIS analyst who worked on homegrown Islamist terrorism and radicalisation for 15 years here is what I am watching for in the days and weeks to come:

  • Was there any indication (what some call ‘leakage’) that the gunman was contemplating violent acts? If so, why were these not taken note of and reported? Were people dismissive? Did they not want to ‘get involved’?
  • What were the assailant’s social media and online activities like in the past few months? Any clues to him having reached a ‘breaking point’?
  • Did he have a history with law enforcement for anything remotely violent in nature?
  • Can we corroborate what evidence there is from multiple sources (this is the sine qua non of intelligence collection and analysis)?

As already noted, we may get no answers to some of all of these questions. A good analogy is the 2017 mass shootings in Las Vegas where two and a half years later we still have no insight into why the gunman carried out his heinous acts (and never will in all likelihood).

This is a truly heartrending episode. Let us stand together as Canadians – as humans – and support those on the front lines of the investigation as well as those suffering most. And, let us not engage in idle or ill-informed speculation.

Phil Gurski is the Director of the Security Program at the University of Ottawa and a 32-year intelligence veteran.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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