More death by vehicle and hate in London, Ontario

Trigger warning: This article contains details regarding Islamophobia and violence that some readers may find unsettling.

Only weeks after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a residential school, Canada must deal with another collective tragedy as its largest mass-casualty incident since the shooting in Portapique, Nova Scotia. The ramming of an innocent family on an evening walk has sent shockwaves through the Canadian community. Eyewitness accounts report the victims being thrown 30 feet and an orphaned 9-year-old crying for his mother.

As of the time of this writing, the alleged attacker appears to be a “lone wolf” with no formal connection to terror groups. Additionally, and unlike most lone wolves, if he had a social media presence, he had scrubbed it in a very sophisticated manner; he was “a ghost”. Early reports indicate he was wearing body armor and a helmet during the attack which, given the modus operandi of lone wolf attackers and the fact that he was arrested only a block from a London mosque, suggest that he was planning on destroying far more lives that night.

Warning Signs

The nature of this attack is disturbing and complex to unpack. Many active attacker events typically have numerous warning signs: the New Zealand shooter visited the mosque multiple times and asked suspicious questions about the security of the premise; people who knew the Portapique shooter noted numerous “red flags” that were clear warning signs. The appearance of a gun or knife in public settings is a strong indicator of violence about to occur.

It is much harder link vehicles to warning signs. However, this event and the Toronto van attack that happened in 2018 show us that they can be linked. Additionally, vehicles can be hijacked for this purpose and internet-connected cars can be hacked remotely for such attacks.

For an attack of this nature, warning signs might include unusual traffic activity such as a vehicle not obeying rules of the road, driving erratically, ignoring traffic signals, or even apparently trailing/following certain individuals. Such signs, if noticed by other drivers and passers-by who are themselves aware of stages of awareness for suspicious activity, could provide victims a chance to a recognize the threat and take evasive maneuvers. This is a reason why it is important to use your car horn in response to erratic driving: it may warn other people of the potential threat, be it accidental or intentional.

However, based on the facts currently available, it seems that many of typical warning signs were not available to the family in London – they had no idea a pick-up truck was about to strike them on the sidewalk. And sadly, even if they were aware, it is likely there was not a large enough window to allow decision making to take place. When faced with such immediate severe events, most human beings cannot react fast enough. Even experienced emergency responders would have trouble reacting quickly enough to avoid the situation.

Reducing the Risk

Vehicle-based violence is usually used against loosely organized gatherings of people, like in a protest, a crowded mall, or a mosque. Because these are singular points of interaction, measures can be implemented to protect crowds in these areas.

One solution to reduce the risk within a more controlled environment is Hostile Vehicle Mitigation (HVM). HVM looks at placing barrier systems in areas vulnerable to vehicle attacks. For example, cars may be placed in areas to block attempts to ram a crowd. Longer term solutions include installing the barriers and bollards now used throughout malls, government buildings, airports, and other crowded venues. Additionally, building architecture can be molded to serve as barriers and built environment changes such as resistive street furniture, trees planters, levelling changes, raised pedestrian footpaths and other concrete structures can be deployed. Streets can be modified with tight bends and speed bumps to prevent high speeds.

This type of this attack comes as a shock, not just for the lives taken from our Canadian community, but also because it seems so much harder to predict and prevent. So many of the usual protective measures do not apply here - an erratic driver may be mistaken for drunk or distracted driving.

The larger solution is that there needs to be vastly increased efforts to combat discrimination in this country to prevent these sorts of attacks. As former London PC candidate Jeff Bennett alluded, discrimination is something that takes hold in our daily lives in more insidious forms, slowly creating a narrative to “otherize” certain people, whether they be Black, Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, Indigenous, persons with disabilities or any other identities.

It is vital that we take a stand to correct daily behavior that engenders these philosophies of discrimination and work towards a world where we do not have to worry about a 9-year-old being orphaned by an act of terror.

Author: Younus Imam, Principal Consultant