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Ottawa Attack Seen As Canada's Security Wake-Up Call

Ottawa police officers, with Parliament Hill in the background, guard the area around the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa on Thursday. (Reuters/Landov)

Until Wednesday, the front door of Canada's main Parliament building, Centre Block, was often left unlocked. Taken as a metaphor for the nation as a whole, many think the attack in Ottawa will change that approach to security.

In the assault, a soldier was killed as he guarded the National War Memorial and a shootout left the gunman dead inside Canada's parliamentary complex.

NPR's Jackie Northam, a native of Canada, summed up the shock that many Canadians are feeling as she reported from Ottawa for Morning Edition today:

"I think the attack is going to be a real wake-up call for Canadians, especially here in Ottawa," a city she describes as "not exactly sleepy, but quiet."

The Globe and Mail notes: "Except during certain events, tourists and the public are generally free to wander the large green lawn in front of the Centre Block, and explore the parking lots behind the various buildings. On sunny days in the summer, the lawn is generally full of people playing soccer, throwing a Frisbee, or attending a yoga class."

"You can see where it would be a pretty easy target," Jackie says, "so for something like this to happen is pretty out of character. The city mayor says they've only been five murders so far this year."

The motive for the attack, reportedly carried out by 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was not immediately known. Media reports have suggested that the attacker was a recent convert to Islam, had recently become "radicalized" and had wanted to travel to Libya to study.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reports: "Canadian Forces officials are assessing whether heightened security is necessary at bases across the country."

"While the incident is under investigation, we will continue to collaborate with our government of Canada partners to assess the current security environment and are evaluating the need for additional security measures at Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) installations," said Gen. Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, in a statement.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a televised speech to the nation Wednesday night, vowed that "Canada will never be intimidated," but he also promised "to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts ... to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe."

Canada had already raised its terrorism threat level from low to moderate in the days before the attack. Two days before the assault on Parliament Hill, two soldiers were targeted in a hit-and-run by a man described as a recently "radicalized" Muslim. One of the soldiers was killed.

On Thursday, addressing the House of Commons, Harper said the government will expedite plans to give more powers of detention and surveillance to security agencies.

"They need to be much strengthened, and I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that work which is already under way will be expedited," he told lawmakers.

Speaking on the CBC program As It Happens, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police deputy commissioner, Pierre-Yves Bourduas, said the breach of security at Parliament is troubling.

"Today's event will crystallize in the mind of Canadian citizens that we live in a transformed world," Bourduas told CBC, adding that Parliament is still a public institution and that "[within] a democracy people will have to decide what kind of parliament do they want."

Despite Canada's easygoing reputation, the country is not a complete stranger to violence, hijackings and terrorism.

In the 1980s, Canada saw a number of incidents involving Sikh separatists, including the high-profile 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to New Delhi via London Heathrow. A total of 329 people, including 268 Canadians, were killed. In the 1960s and '70s, anti-Castro forces carried out several attacks on Cuban diplomats.

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