Mass murder in Nova Scotia and 2020 hindsight


We are now daily updated on the grizzly details surrounding the horrific murders of 22 people at 16 crime scenes across 250 kilometres of a quiet rural area of the province of Nova Scotia.

We ask “why?” We hunger for every detail. We demand answers and when they are not quickly forthcoming we conjure up our own answers through speculation, rumors, and theories woven into a comforting blanket of certainty.  And when that does not work we get angry and point fingers.

This is all quite normal. We all have asked ourselves after a negative event of our own making the great question “What was I thinking?” Or, “How did I not see that coming?” We like stability, assurances, and predictability. When not forthcoming we find externalities to blame. Despite the reality of chaos and non-linearity many of us think in a linear, deterministic fashion expecting, even demanding that past actions repeat themselves precisely and perfectly.

We have cognitive biases wherein our brain filters and shapes what’s happening through our experiences and preferences; confirmation biases where we only accept new ideas if they support our existing ideas; negativity biases where our brain consciously and subconsciously gives far greater weighting to the negative than the positive; and we have cognitive dissonance when a dissonance or conflict happens between our embedded attitudes and/or beliefs and the behaviors we witness.

All those biases and more are now at play with the horrors in Nova Scotia. They reside all or in part in everyone observing from a distance or being close-up and personal. Social and news media consumers, local residents, families and friends of victims, and emergency personnel including police officers.

Our cognitive biases tell us that police should have behaved like police do in all major and violent incidents that we know about. Bring us snap-the-finger instant security; tell us who the bad guy is and then catch him; and roll out a critical incident plan with airtight precision. Bring us certainty and safety with fulsome and constant communications. Empower us with direction. Dampen our fears.

As they say in the theatre of battle “The first casualty of war is the plan.” In my 20 years as a Civilian Member with the RCMP I was often told by seasoned veterans that the police force is “Experts at Plan B and Plan C.” And indeed in my experience this is so. But crises are not linear. They are messy, they defy predictability, they present all the characteristics of chaos, and they can appear as apparitions from a hell we never imagined.

This was the hell in northern Nova Scotia when a man dressed like an RCMP officer, driving a perfect replica of an RCMP patrol car, went on a killing spree over a wide swath of dark, late-night territory. In effect, brave RCMP members were as one Constable said, “appeared to be hunting our own.” This is cognitive dissonance gone nuclear. For citizens, for police officers. It is mind-blowing.

And so today with perfect 2020 vision in the year 2020 we have journalists and the public express many deeply embedded biases in our brain. Our negativity biases very understandably inculcate the strong horrors and evil perpetrated. We demand to know why these things happened, who is to blame, what went wrong. Those boiling emotions of fear and anger leave little room for anything good completed and contemplated.

Our confirmation biases without a countervailing view just absolutely know that police should have done something different just like we just know from past experiences how every critical incident and active shooter must be managed. We are experts. We’ve seen it reported on TV in the past and sort of, kind of, think we know the sequential, linear playbook that fits all sizes of horror.

Unfortunately and sadly there is no one-size perfect playbook for all manner of critical incidents facing police. Sure, there are very detailed and long practiced processes and protocols involving action plans, a structure of critical incident commanders and after-action reviews. There is much experience from the past to draw upon. But to be experts in Plan A, B, and C does not prepare one very well when it is Plan Bizarro. A chaotic manifestation of morphing, shape-shifting, interconnected (maybe/maybe not) parts. A crisis always, in small or large part, for shorter or longer, expresses chaos.

In the end we will indeed know more details as they slowly emerge from the RCMP and others and invariably this crisis, spawned by very ethereal wisps of an issue-in-the-making will evolve into inevitable change.




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