Canada has had a rough week. First there was the fatal hit and run attack on two soldiers in Quebec, in which one soldier died and the other sustained injuries. The suspect, who was shot and killed by police, was considered radicalized and had previously had his passport confiscated. As Canada’s attention increasingly turned towards addressing extremism, Ottawa was shocked and caught off guard on Wednesday when a lone gunman shot and killed a solider at the National War Memorial and then entered the Parliament building a few minutes later. As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and lawmakers scrambled for safety, the police engaged in a gunfight with the suspect, ultimately killing him. This suspect, also considered radicalized, also had his passport revoked.
The Ottawa shooting brought extremism and national security to the forefront of Canadians’ minds. Fear is a powerful force and since lawmakers were the ones directly exposed to the vulnerability of feeling unsafe during the Ottawa shooting, it is not unreasonable to expect them to pass laws strengthening Canada’s defense and national security, as well as intelligence gathering services. The day after the attack, Harper said he would “expedite security measures to toughen powers of surveillance and detention.”
Although Canada recently committed to joining U.S. led airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS for the next six months, overall, Canada has not been a particularly influential player in the fight against terrorism and extremists. However, will the Ottawa attacks inspire a change in Canadian public opinion? Will Canada become more aggressive and follow a response similar to how the U.S. reacted to terrorist attacks on its soil? Will the shooting inspire fear of a general lack of safety and cause the public to demand greater protection?
Whether or not events such as the Ottawa shooting are intentionally hyped by the media, the simple fact that the events are well covered and discussed keeps citizens alert to and aware of the perils the country is facing. Lobbyists, particularly those in the defense industry, can use such situations to more effectively convince lawmakers to devote considerable resources towards national security.
In his book, “In Time of War”, Adam Berinsky discusses public opinion and although he focuses on America and war in particular in his analysis of public opinion, the general arguments and facts are applicable to other countries and could relate to domestic defense as well as international war. Berinksy believes affiliations to groups, as well as patterns of elite discourse, are influential in determining general support for a war or conflict. This is not to say that the public blindly follows a politician, but rather, they reference group loyalties while simultaneously accounting for “patterns of political leadership and partisan conflict in order to come to reasonable decisions that accord with their predispositions.”
Berinsky warns against the ephemeral effect of events. While a tragic event certainly contributes to the public’s reaction, it is “the nature of the debate among political elites concerning the salience and meaning of wartime events [that] determines if the public will rally...” So while media, lobbyists, and events all play a role in shaping public opinion, there is more to it. To be sure, Canada certainly experienced a series of unfortunate and terrible events this past week. However, the events in and of themselves are unlikely to create sustained public support for an increase in defense spending, international involvement in wars, and more invasive intelligence gathering. Perhaps what is more important to generating public opinion that supports bolstering national security, both through domestic and international actions, is preexisting partisan inclinations and the pattern of elite discussion on this topic.