Terror in the heart of Anytown, Canada

Attacks like the one in Edmonton are teaching us to ask ourselves: why not here?
People gather for a vigil to stand together in solidarity against violence after a terrorist incident in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday, October 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
People gather for a vigil to stand together in solidarity against violence after a terrorist incident in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday, October 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
People gather Sunday for a vigil to stand together in solidarity against violence after a terrorist incident in Edmonton  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Mohamed Salama and Sara Buczynski each arrived on their own to Edmonton’s post-attack vigil, hoping they recognized friends in the downtown square. They knew each other vaguely from around town, and were happy to huddle together in the wind and near-freezing rain before the dignitaries began speaking. In time, a few hundred people gathered around them—a rainbow of ballcaps, hijabs and toques—for the sort of show of solidarity they’d seen so often in other cities.

This time, the violence that brought mourners and residents together in places like Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino, Calif., and Nice, France, came to Alberta’s capital city, Salama and Buczynski’s city. A man believed to be poisoned by Islamic extremist ideology, and acting on his own, had wielded two vehicles and a knife as weapons, injuring one police officer and four pedestrians, and had by all appearances wished to injure or kill far more people.

“I kind of feel we were a little bit naïve [in thinking] it could never happen here,” Salama said. “I felt Edmonton wasn’t big enough: if you wanted to make a statement, why would Edmonton be the place?”

Edmonton, with a metro population of more than a million, is no minor urban centre. But as a town populated by a mix of government, university and energy workers, it can feel like a sort of Anytown, Canada. As surely as we can ask the question “why here?” we can ask “why not here?” Police describe the suspect, Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, as an angry, disaffected 30-year-old with a history of espousing radical views, but someone they never thought capable until this weekend of erupting in violence. In a way, the answer to “why here” is simple: because this is where the attacker happened to be. It’s the same tautological answer to why schools in Columbine, Colo., or  Newtown, Conn., or Taber, Alta., were traumatized by shootings: that’s where the guy happened to live.

READ MORE: Police were told Edmonton terror suspect was spreading extremism

That it can pretty much happen anywhere, due to the randomness of where a radicalized individual might reside, can be chilling, disturbing. It’s the same sense of chance that determines when a drunk driver fails to see somebody on a crosswalk, or in their car’s blind spot, though terror attacks like Edmonton’s are far less common than the hazards posed by impaired motorists.

RCMP and local police admitted their integrated national security team had investigated complaints about Sharif’s extremist views in 2015, but say they had no evidence that warranted a terrorism charge, peace bond or even further investigation. Of the numerous Canadians of all backgrounds they investigate as potential national security threats—including some in Edmonton’s Somali community, which has itself expressed worries about extremism—they concluded he wasn’t one, and showed no signs of violent radicalization. So it often goes in counterterrorism work, until an individual takes a sinister turn. It’s hard to know which straw in the haystack will transform into a needle.

If it was shaken, the city didn’t show it much one day later. Downtown’s Jasper Avenue had its usual slow trickle of pedestrians braving a windswept, chilly October day. At the opposite end of downtown from where police tactics toppled the suspect’s cargo truck, a stream of parents and young children entered the Shaw Conference Centre; the Garden Bros. Circus was in town.

There’s an arbitrary fortune of the other sort this weekend in Edmonton: that nobody was killed by a man who used a car to ram a police officer directing traffic outside a football game, then aimed a U-Haul truck at pedestrians in alleys and crosswalks during a midnight police chase through the heart of the city. Const. Mike Chernyk, the remarkable officer whom surveillance video showed flying through the air after being hit, managed to protect himself and his firearm as his attacker stabbed him with a large knife, slicing his face and head. Through a mixture of self-defence and luck, Chernyk’s stab wounds were not serious, and he was at home recovering by midday Sunday.

A rental truck lies on its side in Edmonton, Canada, on October 1, 2017, after a high speed chase. Canadian police arrested a man early Sunday suspected of stabbing an officer and injuring four pedestrians in a series of violent incidents being investigated as an "act of terrorism." The crime spree began late September 30 outside a football stadium and ended hours later with a high speed chase in which the driver of the rented truck plowed into pedestrians, police said. (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Michael Mukai/AFP/Getty Images)
The rental truck lies on its side after a high speed chase in which it struck four pedestrians (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Michael Mukai/AFP/Getty Images)

More unpredictable still is how parts of society respond to such attacks—particularly when the alleged perpetrator is Muslim or Somali. When Premier Rachel Notley and other dignitaries (including many Muslim community leaders) at Sunday night’s rally declared that hate would not divide Edmontonians and Albertans, they meant not only the hatred implicit in the terrorist attack, but also any backlash that might ensue. “If I’m worried about one thing, one thing, it’s this: it’s a refugee child going to daycare, going to school, tomorrow, and feeling scared,” said Mayor Don Iveson, urging residents to make those children and others feel included in the community.

The same concern brought Buczynski, who works with immigrants in Edmonton, to the vigil in the downtown square. “We live in sometimes a really beautiful place and sometimes people have some really hard feelings about different kinds of people,” she said.

Ikram Abdinur, a 22-year-old Somali, knows well the backlash that befalls community members when terrorist attacks happen in other cities. She’s worried more for women who, unlike her, wear the hijab; who’ve had Tim Hortons coffee thrown at them, been shoved and yelled at in the city. “They’re even scared to speak up for themselves, because they think that nobody will defend them. So things like this are so important,” Abdinur said.

As hundreds of Edmontonians linked arms and denounced division and hatred, one man stood quietly behind the ralliers with a sign protesting sharia law. He was just one individual, largely overlooked or ignored by everyone else, save a few curious journalists. There are doubtless others who didn’t bothering showing up in the cold who buy his wary message moreso than the vigil speakers. They might not be as quiet and passive as he was.

CORRECTION, Oct. 2, 2017: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Edmonton’s metro population is larger than those of Orlando, San Bernardino and Nice. Of those, metro Edmonton is in fact only larger than Nice.

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