Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Least Of These: What To Do With Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's Body

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau

On Saturday, October 4th, a man by the name of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau traveled to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, Canada and did what thousands of tourists do each year: he went on a tour. The 32-year-old, who had spent time living in various Canadian cities, most recently Calgary, had been staying at the Ottawa Mission since the previous Thursday. Zehaf-Bibeau apparently spoke to fellow residents about the Parliament buildings, asking how difficult it was to get into them, according to one man. In the next two and a half weeks, he would have lunch with his mother who hadn't seen him in years. It is also of note that in the past he had met with a psychiatrist, and had asked to be placed in jail, which did not happen. In the two and a half weeks after arriving at Ottawa Mission, Zehaf-Bibeau would somehow obtain a rifle as well as a car.

October 22nd, 2014 would become a day which will never be forgotten by a nation stunned to its very psyche. Twelve days prior, a man with radical jihadist ideas pointed his car at two members of the Canadian Armed Forces in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, crashing into them, and killing 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

On the morning of the 22nd, Zehaf-Bibeau, with no warning at all, made his way to the National War Memorial in Ottawa, and heinously murdered 24-year-old Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who, as a reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada from Hamilton, Ontario, was guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier along with his best friend from the same regiment. The young Corporal and father of a 5-year-old son never had a chance.

Zehaf-Bibeau, who also appears to have been radicalized by ISIL propaganda, then drove a short distance to the Parliament Buildings, and ran past those guarding the front entrance. However, the various security and law enforcement teams that work in conjunction with one another on the Hill quickly sprang into action, engaging Zehaf-Bibeau in a brief gun battle, before Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers, a longtime veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, engaged Bibeau, shooting and killing him in front of the Parliamentary Library. Meanwhile, as these events unfolded, stunned and shaken parliamentary caucuses, which meet regularly on Wednesdays, huddled in their rooms, stacking chairs and tables against their doors in order to prevent the gunman - at this point they did not know if there were more than one - from harming them. In these moments and the hours that followed, an entire city, yes, an entire country, was shaken at such a brazen attack. It also turns out that a knife was found on the person of Zehaf-Bibeau after his death; authorities presume that it was his intention to behead a member or members of Canadian parliament, as is customary with ISIL practices and propaganda.

Let's fast-forward to today, 25 days after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's lifeless body was removed from Parliament Hill. His body is still in the possession of the Ottawa Coroner's Office, as they meticulously determine entry and exit points from his gunshot wounds, as well as toxicology tests to determine if he was under the influence of any drug when he undertook his vicious actions.

The conversation is now turning to the awkward question of what to do with Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's body once the coroner's office is through with it. Islam forbids cremation, so that is not an option. Many in the Muslim community have been reluctant to have anything to do with Bibeau whatsoever. According to the CBC, "One Muslim cemetery said it was concerned that accepting his remains might lead to vandalism, or even an attempt to disinter the body. The funeral director at another cemetery that has a Muslim section said he would not deny him burial, but would insist that any ceremony be very discreet. He said he also might insist that any grave not be marked, in order to prevent it from becoming a place of pilgrimage for like-minded extremists."

As for a funeral, Samy Metwally, imam of the Ottawa mosque, said that his mosque will not deny a funeral to a Muslim. "While denouncing what he did as a crime, a terrorist attack against a soldier who was serving the country, we say that if he's believing in God, if he's a Muslim, then he should be buried. We will give him a funeral service." Metwally looked to another religion to shed some clarity on his stance: "As in the Christian faith, even the worst of sinners are not denied funeral rites. It is for God to be his judge. As he has done his crime, so we leave him to God to judge him, in the hereafter."

But the imam says he will not personally lead the funeral prayer for Zehaf-Bibeau, in order to discourage others from following his example and to express the congregation's disapproval of what Zehaf-Bibeau did in life.

Having considered this awkward question, what should we do as a society when people who have committed such horrific, heinous crimes die? What's more, how should we treat them if they, unlike Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, live? No doubt there are more than a few who would say that Bibeau does not deserve a funeral, and perhaps his just reward would be to string his corpse up in front of the parliament buildings so that Canadian citizens could take up pitchforks and brooms and pummel him like a piƱata.

We can ask ourselves the same questions when it comes to other perpatrators of terrible, sometimes unimaginable violence throughout our history. Had Adolf Hitler lived, should have he been given a funeral? What if Saddam Hussein had somehow been captured and held by the United States instead of handed over to the Iraqis? Or Timothy McVeigh? Or Osama bin Laden?

Before dismissing me as the lefty-liberal that I admittedly am, let me be clear. I am glad that Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers confronted Zehaf-Bibeau and incapacitated him before he could murder anyone else. Likewise, I do not believe that the way to victory in World War II would have been to hold several wine-and-dines (or bratwursts-and-beers) with Adolf Hitler - British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proved that point brutally well. Furthermore, in no way do I think that the barbaric leaders of ISIL are inclined to sit down for a nice cup of tea with leaders from the West in order to discuss a resolution to the current, abhorrent violence. It is sad that we live in a world where, unfortunately, the best way to currently deal with ISIL is to bomb the living hell out of them.

Sometimes the problem becomes more muddy when the criminals go through the justice system, facing a court or a jury, and are incarcerated for sometimes short, sometimes long periods of time. This of course brings up the touchy subject of capital punishment. As of 2013, the American public support of the death penalty was at 63%; in somewhat of a surprise, the Canadian percentage was exactly the same.

However, I disagree with this form of retribution. Questions come to mind such as "Does killing a criminal really assuage any of the pain of his/her victims?" But most of all, I can't help but think that capital punishment makes us peace-loving citizens stoop to their level, and that revenge is never sweet. How many millions of lives have been lost over the course of human history due to the simple premise that "You have deeply hurt me (or my people), so I am therefore justified in hurting you back."

I can not help but hear the words of Jesus from my youth, where he says to his disciples:

"Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’" ~ Matthew 25: 34-40

Let me tell you about one of the "least of these." It has come to my attention that a cousin of mine, who I have not seen since we were both very young and thus I do not have any recollection of him, has recently been designated as a dangerous offender by a Superior Court judge, a rare designation in my country. This 39-year-old repeat pedophile has been incarcerated on several occasions for long periods of time. His unspeakable attacks on the most vulnerable of society have left children and their families scarred, perhaps for life. His is not a sympathetic case. While incarcerated, he has attended counselling for high-intensity sexual offenders in a program aimed at relapse prevention that included both group and individual counselling. A final report stated that he “appeared not to associate harm to the child with his child molestation," that he is indifferent to the reasonable foreseeable consequences of his behaviour,” and that he was at a high risk to re-offend within five to 15 years." The rare dangerous offender designation means that he could very well be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

Should he be shown leniency or granted supervised or unsupervised visits? Absolutely not if there is a reasonable chance - which there definitely is in this case - that he would harm more children. Going further, does he deserve any contact with the outside world, or even deserve to remain alive? The answer again is probably "no."

But this isn't about deservability. This is about humanity. I believe that we can strongly and vehemently denounce atrocities perpetrated by members of our society without categorizing them as sub-human. Calling someone "evil" is, in my opinion, a cop out. It conveniently separates "us" from "them," as if we would never ever be capable under any circumstance to even come close to their level of depravity. The truth though, is, that we can. We may not have the impulses of Hitler, Manson, bin Laden, or a pedophile, but most of us can understand, even if slightly, how a person could give in to such utter darkness. And we all have dark places of our own, though they are not usually as deep-rooted and insidious as that of a murderer or pedophile.
So what is the answer? As much as we may want to cast aside "the least of these," if we do so, we also cast aside the dark places within ourselves: the envy, prejudices, indifferences, greed, and so much more that we deal with so often.

The only answer is compassion.  Compassion for ourselves, and compassion for those who do not deserve it. Compassion ushers us ever more deeply into our humanity. It may not be popular, it may be contrary to our immediate compulsion towards retribution, but it is the most human way.

I do not know if I will ever reach out to the cousin who, in all practicality, I have never met; it's too close to home. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. But because I have no close connection with Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, I hope that this mentally ill young man with jihadist ideas is laid to rest where his bones will not be disturbed.

Mark Andrew Nouwen