Skip Navigation

How to Talk to Your Fellow Citizens About an Act of Terror

Canada’s Justin Trudeau offers a state-of-the-art way in which a Western politician can talk to his fellow citizens about an act of terror.

Published: October 27, 2014

Justin Trudeau, the son of Canada’s most famous (and perhaps most important) prime minister, rose in the House of Commons Wednesday to deliver a brief speech about the attack on Parliament Hill in Ottawa that left one service member dead and the rest of his nation stunned. The leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, meaning a man likely one day to become the leader of Canada, Trudeau toggled back and forth between English and French, between the two solitudes that have marked his country since before its independence, and what he said was remarkable. Here now, 13 years after the Twin Towers fell, is the state-of-the-art way in which a Western politician can talk to his fellow citizens about an act of terror. (You can view the entire speech here, courtesy of CBC News)

First, there was the opening ode to national unity.

Yesterday’s events were a shared, national tragedy. It is fitting that we have come together in this place, immediately, to let the world know that Canada’s values are strong, our institutions are resilient, and our people are united together.

There was a tribute to the fallen.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of yesterday’s tragic events. Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered while guarding our nation’s sacred memorial to his own fallen comrades. He was unarmed. (Speaking in French: Corporal Cirillo was a hero and a servant. He was also a father. Let us all remember that today there is a little boy who suddenly, tragically, lost his father. Let us pledge to honour his memory.

There was a reminder of the crime committed. 

(Speaking in French: Corporal Cirillo’s death, like that of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent earlier this week, was a cold-blooded murder. Both attacks are cowardly and unforgiveable). Should any other perpetrators or co-conspirators exist, they should be punished with the full force of our laws.

There was an expression of gratitude toward those who ran toward the gunfire.

I also extend my deep and sincere gratitude on behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada to the brave women and men who selflessly and courageously came to our help yesterday. through them and their actions, we are reminded of the professionalism and dedication so often exhibited by those who protect us. Thank you. (Speaking in French: And to our Sergeant-at-Arms, we would like to issue particular thanks. Your heroic actions have been widely lauded – and for good reason). Kevin, without your courage, a terrible situation would have become much worse. We are in your debt. Canadians are proud of you, and they thank you.

Then — and here is where the speech became an important one — there was the reminder of what terrorism is meant to be and how a free people may thwart its purpose.

Yesterday’s attack on both our military and our most cherished democratic symbols was designed to frighten us. It was meant to embed within our minds an image of terror. It was meant to make us think differently about our surroundings and fellow citizens. (Speaking in French: This was an act designed to have us forget ourselves. What we must do is remember all the time who we are.)

There was the pledge to remember the very values that threaten some terrorists, the values of openness and freedom and civil law. 

We are a proud democracy, a welcoming and peaceful nation, and a country of open arms, open minds, and open hearts. We are a nation of fairness, justice, and the rule of law. And we will not be intimidated into changing that, not by anybody. These are instead the very values and ideals upon which we must rely in the days ahead. It is in our dedication to these principles that we can set an example to the world. (Speaking in French: These pillars of our society are an unbreakable foundation. Our continued belief in them will guide us correctly into the future.)

Critically, there was the recognition that terrorists are not monsters, nor superhuman, but rather mortal men committing statutory crimes.  

Let us also remember what we are up against. The individuals who committed these awful acts are not larger than life. They are not giants. They are certainly not martyrs. That is how they want us to see them, but it is not what they are. Seeing them that way lets the fear they try to perpetuate grow. (Speaking in French: Thinking of them in this way affords them credibility when they deserve none. They are criminals, and criminals do not dictate to us how we act as a nation, how we govern ourselves, or how we treat each other. They will not dictate our values).

There was defiance.

They will not make the rules about this land we share, and they do not get to change us.

There was candor.

We are aware of the threats we face as a nation. We know, as we have long known, that we are not immune, nor can we guard totally against danger in the future. What we can do is not let these threats define us.

There was an appreciation of the nation’s multi-cultural heritage and the notion that religion need not divide people.

We need to have answers as to how and why this happened. They will be vital in preventing and helping to prevent any future attacks. (Speaking in French: And to our friends and fellow Canadians in the Muslim community, we offer an extended hand. Canadians know that yesterday’s acts were criminal, not religious. They are an abhorrent perversion of their faith. Continued mutual cooperation and respect will prevent the influence of distorted ideology and propaganda masquerading as religion. Our values may be tested, but have faith that they are strong, our Canadian values. We will walk forward together, never apart).

And there was no ending expression of anger, no pledge of revenge. It ends with the image of “strength and hope.”

Those who carried out these attacks wanted to leave us with an image of fear, of chaos. Let us remember one of strength and of hope. The image in our collective minds, and shared in our hearts, of Canadians helping and protecting Canadians, of passersby trying to save the life of a young man who gave his in service to his country. (Speaking in French: That is who we truly are, and that is who we shall continue to be. Thank you.

Would a leading American political figure make such a speech in the wake of another terror attack upon American soil? Sure. Parts of Trudeau’s speech are a part of every future speech reacting to a national tragedy. But parts of his speech are both uniquely Canadian and unique to our Western experiences following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. We have learned, I think, or at least some of us have anyway, that there is great strength not just in pledging to change our laws and nature to confront the threat of terrorism but in not pledging not to change them as well.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)