By Cal Braid
Westwind Weekly News
More than two years ago, a Nova Scotia gunman left a trail of death and destruction that started in Portapique and ended in Enfield. The unravelling of events on April 18 and 19, 2020 was mind-bending, and before the gunman was shot dead by police, fires blazed and 22 people were killed. It’s one of those rare Canadian stories that’s so surreal because it doesn’t fit with our collective consciousness about who we are as citizens or a country. Some acts of murder and violence are so appalling that they have an unusual effect: We can’t look away because we’re stunned by disbelief.
In recent weeks, CBC Radio has covered the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) that is underway in Halifax, and at one point in their coverage, a single phrase stood out as worthwhile of consideration. The CBC host said that “They have the benefit of hindsight,” meaning the RCMP has the benefit of hindsight as they move forward in establishing better protocols for critical incident responses. The statement was nothing outrageous, but rather a trigger for reflection.
The ‘benefit of hindsight,’ as a phenomenon, seems to be a tool for processing failures. Hindsight is a reactive response that strives to become proactive, for future reference. Here’s the catch, though: It’s only for the living. Hindsight only exists for people who are the survivors, witnesses, or first responders. It’s contingent upon having survived the situation. It’s also sort of abstract. It’s a game of ‘let’s pretend,’ after the fact. When the smoke clears and the death toll is high, it’s only the living who get the benefit of hindsight. The dead get nothing. They’ve been eliminated from the world of possibilities and experiences. The living are left to try to gather meaning from the ashes of tragedy. The living are left to formulate ‘how-to’ or ‘how-not-to’ react to the next crisis.
Preparation and foresight are tremendous learned skills that can determine our fates. The problem is that no two crises occur in exactly the same way. The conditions and circumstances of each situation are either somewhat or entirely different.
You could projectt a response for how you’ll react to the next big, bad thing. You could say, “Under the same conditions, I would respond by doing B instead of A.” However, the exact same conditions never reappear. So, the benefit of hindsight is merely a tool for building a better framework. That’s not nothing, but it’s not great either. It doesn’t solve the problem of reacting in real-time to events that blindside us.
It works to the extent that it allows us to brainstorm some general guidelines about what we should do better in a similar emergency. It doesn’t work as well for survivors and grief-stricken family members though. What’s done is done. There’s a finality to it. The point of no return has been crossed.
The MCC released an Interim Report in May 2022. It’s a 171-page document that quickly establishes that “We make no findings of fact in this Interim Report. It would be premature to do so as we continue to build our evidentiary record and try to understand how and why the mass casualty happened.”
As a public inquiry, they also assert that “(…) As we move away from looking back at what happened to looking forward, we can identify ways to help prevent future incidents of this kind and, should they occur, to suggest the best ways to respond to them.”
In other words, they’re using the benefit of hindsight to inform our preparation for next time. What the Commission will ostensibly have to offer us when they wrap up in the fall are some clear answers and a better plan of action for next time.
One of the most pressing demands on the MCC will be to build an understanding and response for critical incidents.
According to the Commission, “Critical Incident is the term used by emergency services to describe a life-threatening situation in which demand for emergency services outstrips resources, immediate responses are necessary even though information about the nature of the incident may be incomplete, and the stakes are very high.”
A realist might conclude that we cannot plan for every possibility. Whatever schemes or plans are forming in peoples’ minds are their secrets. No one can know. A deranged mind can’t always be pinpointed or exposed before an individual acts out a lethal plan.
Of course, there are often warning signs; assault, uttering threats, gathering illegal weapons, domestic abuse, and so on. Not all strange behaviour is deviant and dangerous, though. You can’t regulate eccentricity or even mental illness. There are no thought police. It’s expected that the MCC will compile a series of benchmarks, thresholds, and red flags to identify volatile individuals when the Commission releases its recommendations and findings. Whether these will be helpful remains to be seen.
Some things are easier to plan for than others, but terror and mayhem can come out of nowhere, at any time. The situation that began in Portapique and ended in Enfield was unique, in that once the gunman became unhinged, he remained that way; on a rampage for a full 13 hours. That’s almost unheard of. War could be seen as a prolonged act of vicious hostility. Serial killers might act upon their rage over months or years before a pattern emerges. Overall, though, disaster tends to strike and end quickly. The fact that the Nova Scotia gunman was an RCMP lookalike and moved from place to place throughout the region for that many hours was unprecedented. He rewrote the script for mass murder, and it’s possible rural cops in the area had real trouble reacting to a roving killer moving through the night in that manner.
Second guessing is a losing game. Would have, could have, should have. Second guessing turns the benefit of hindsight into a blame game where we beat up on ourselves or beat up on others for the failures that led to a terrible outcome. It’s entirely understandable that victims and survivors would want someone to blame. If the system has failed them, the MCC should acknowledge that and try to make it right in some way. Unfortunately, all the hindsight in the world can’t repair the damage done.