Michael Zehaf-Bibeau knew exactly what he was about to do—and why. On Friday morning, Canadians will finally see his explanation for themselves.
Under pressure for months, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has agreed to publicly release the Parliament Hill gunman’s final manifesto: a cellphone video, less than a minute long, recorded mere moments before he opened fire on a Canadian soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial. It is Zehaf-Bibeau in his own words—the clearest evidence, by far, of what was swirling through his mind as he approached Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, rifle drawn.
Was he a hardened terrorist motivated by the same Islamist ideology that has infected so many other Islamic State wannabes? Or was his shooting spree, to borrow his mother’s words, “the last desperate act” of a crack cocaine addict with obvious mental health problems?
The footage should leave little doubt about the answer. Or lots.
The RCMP revealed the video’s existence on Oct. 26, four days after Zehaf-Bibeau was cut down by a flurry of bullets inside Centre Block’s Hall of Honour. The clip provided “persuasive evidence” that his attack “was driven by ideological and political motives,” the Mounties announced. (If that conclusion wasn’t clear enough, the title of the press release left no doubt: “RCMP update on the October 22, 2014, terrorist attack in Ottawa.’’)
The next day, Paulson described the video to reporters. “He was quite deliberate, he was quite lucid and he was quite purposeful in articulating the basis for his actions, and they were in respect broadly to Canada’s foreign policy and also in respect of his religious beliefs,” the commissioner said. According to Paulson, Zehaf-Bibeau specifically threatened the military in his recording. At another point, he invoked Allah.
Defined by the Criminal Code, terrorism is any act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause,” with the intention of intimidating the public or compelling a government “to do or to refrain from doing any act.” In the eyes of the RCMP—even then, just days after the attack—Zehaf-Bibeau clearly fit that definition. “I’m not persuaded at all that mental illness is driving these things,” Paulson told reporters. “What’s driving these things is a distorted world view.”
Asked if Canadians could see the proof with their own eyes, Paulson said the video “will certainly someday be released,” as soon as the RCMP extracts all possible intelligence and evidence. “I really am inclined to overcome those challenges and get it released as soon as possible,” he promised.
But a month later, the commissioner balked. He said the RCMP may end up disclosing only a partial transcript, not the actual video. “I think it forms a central part of the evidence,” Paulson said on Dec. 1, suggesting that a court case (for a potential accomplice, perhaps) could still be possible. “I think we need to think thoroughly through the benefits and the merits of releasing the video.”
What changed his mind?
Some have suggested that the video doesn’t quite match the commissioner’s initial description. We now know, of course, that Zehaf-Bibeau had a long history of hard-drug addiction and potential mental health problems. Homeless in 2011, he was so desperate to go to jail and sober up that he staged a robbery at a Vancouver McDonald’s. “I’m a crack addict and, at the same time, I’m a religious person,” he told a judge after his arrest. “I want to sacrifice freedom and good things for a year, maybe, so when I come out I’ll appreciate things in life more and be clean.”
To be clear, here is what happened next: a psychiatrist who examined Zehaf-Bibeau concluded that “he didn’t suffer from a mental illness.” A second psych assessment uncovered “no features or signs of mental illness.” A third exam, conducted after he served two months behind bars, found that he may suffer from an undiagnosed mental disorder, perhaps bipolarity. Zehaf-Bibeau told the examiner he did not agree with the conclusion—and on the day he was released from prison, his lawyer described him as a “perfectly functioning individual.”
Because mental illness cannot be diagnosed after death, the question will always linger. But even if Zehaf-Bibeau was mentally unbalanced, that wouldn’t automatically absolve him of criminal responsibility—or make him not a terrorist. There is no evidence to suggest he suffered from a major mental health disorder that triggered psychotic episodes (think Vincent Li, the schizophrenic who beheaded a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus; or Richard Kachkar, the barefoot tow-truck thief who ran over a Toronto police officer). Unlike those killers, Zehaf-Bibeau seems to have known what he was doing—and what the consequences would be.
The attack he unleashed was the driving force behind C-51, the federal Conservatives’ sweeping anti-terror omnibus bill. Along with expanding the no-fly list and introducing jail time for people who promote terror, the controversial legislation will grant new powers to police and spies to disrupt suspected plots, seize terrorist propaganda, and detain potential threats without charge. Some have gone so far as to accuse the Harper government of somehow shelving the Zehaf-Bibeau video because it doesn’t mesh with the bill’s key selling point: that what happened in the capital was a “call to action” to confront “violent jihadist terrorism.” (For the record, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said that he has never seen the video and doesn’t interfere with RCMP operations.)
So why has the commissioner changed his mind, yet again? Why—after promising, then refusing—is he now willing to press the play button? If the reports are accurate, it was Paulson himself who decided it was time to release the video, more than four months after the fact. And it was Paulson who selected the venue: Friday’s meeting of the House of Commons standing committee on public safety and national security.
Canadians are anxious to hear his explanation. Though not nearly as anxious as Paulson must be to let everyone see what he already knows: the truth.