Rituals of the Mace, limits of the handgun: in defence of ritual

Through force of ritual practice and habit, Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers manages the emotions of a parliamentary ovation. Youtube/CBC News

What makes a man return to work the day after killing someone? How does he manage to do his job in such circumstances and under public scrutiny? The day after mortally wounding Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, returned to work and took part in the daily procession into Canada’s House of Commons.

The television footage is compelling. We see him lead the attendants and security staff down the long corridor where the day before he had killed a man. Vickers walks into the chamber, where he is greeted with a standing ovation and loud, sustained applause. Vickers’ face shows the strain. His lower lip trembles, and his expression is drawn and tense.

It is almost painful to watch the full length of the ovation. There is an uncomfortable drama here: no-one knows how long such an ovation should last. No-one knows how to bring it to a timely end.

Vickers’ performance of his role is disciplined and rigorous to a fault, but nothing has prepared him for this.

Ritual has a special power

Ceremonies and rituals are not empty forms, but can help us manage emotions in traumatic situations. It is the force of ritual practice and the familiarity of habitual behaviours that make it possible for Vickers to continue in his professional role. The ritual may even bring him some comfort.

Much of the commentary on Vickers contrasts the ceremonial Mace with the handgun he used to kill the intruder, implying a dramatic contrast between the sergeant’s ceremonial role and the reality of modern security practices.

In fact, the act of using the handgun is brutally limited. The Mace conveys deeper symbolic power. It was originally a weapon that was used to guard the king as early as the 14th century. Now, its symbolism carries an effective weight of guardianship into the 21st.

As in Australia, the Canadian Lower House preserves many aspects of what is known as Westminster parliamentary tradition: a formal procession into the house; the ceremonial Mace symbolising the Speaker’s authority to preside over the parliament’s deliberations; and further visual signs of this authority in ritual costume.

Vickers wears a black bicorne hat; a long, white, tabbed collar; and a metal chain or collar of linked Ss whose origins date back to the 12th century. On the back of his long tailcoat, he sports a black silk rosette, designed to catch the white powder from the wig he would have worn in the 18th century.

These vestiges of an earlier historical period have been much debated in parliamentary practice in England, Canada and in Australia. Australia’s Serjeant still wears a lace jabot and white gloves as he or she brings the Mace into the Lower House. We still perform the ritual of dragging a reluctant Speaker to the chair.

At the opening of each parliamentary session, we still enact the ritual whereby the Usher of the Black Rod from the Upper House summons the members of the Lower House for a joint sitting, but finds the doors of the chamber slammed in his face, and must strike the door three times with his ebony and silver rod to gain entry.

These rituals can be read as archaic desires to hold on to a traditional past or, alternatively, as confident choices about which traditions to preserve and which to set aside. To defend ritual is not necessarily to be a staid conservative.

A framework to manage strong emotions

The emotions associated with heritage culture are rich and complex. The rituals themselves encode and dramatise strong feelings and emotions. They offer a structured supportive framework for experiencing emotions as well as dramatising them.

The Duke of Edinburgh observes that the ‘lunacy’ of some rituals is rendered irrelevant by the comfort and enjoyment they bring. EPA/Andy Rain

Many rituals have their origins not just in moments of high feeling or political tension, but also in mistakes or formal transgressions. The Order of the Garter, for example, is said to have originated in 1348 when Edward III courteously saved the embarrassment of a woman whose garter had fallen to the ground while dancing. He promised to found a chivalric order in honour of the event.

Whether true or not, this is a much-loved myth. Ritual practice is easy to mock and deride, but there is without doubt a second-order pleasure in the preservation and maintenance of such traditions. The Duke of Edinburgh himself said of the Order of the Garter:

Rationally it’s lunatic, but in practice, everyone enjoys it, I think.

In extreme and traumatic situations like the Canadian example, we may also inquire about the emotions of the performers in these rituals and rites. Wearing an archaic and formal uniform helps the sergeant bury his personal feelings. The rituals and trappings of his office help him govern his trembling and traumatised body. Long practised in holding his body straight, and appearing expressionless, he is able to bear up under the strain of another form of ritual practice.

The standing ovation in his honour lasts over two minutes. Yet he is unable fully to acknowledge the applause in a way that might bring it to an end, because his ritual role does not prescribe any more than a formal nod to the Speaker.

The parliamentarians make lighter work of this. It is easier to give as a group than receive as an individual. Yet they too struggle to know when the ovation should end.

Watching the footage, it is hard not to be struck by the formality of the Hansard reporter. She stands with her back to the Sergeant, as the ritual prescribes. So, too, the attendants standing behind Vickers. They are impassive and unmoved, all respecting the tradition and resisting any impulse to display emotion.

Evan Solomon, for CBC News, commented on Vickers’ actions:

Those people who think it’s a ceremonial position now know it is not.

Solomon misses the critical issue here about the human condition. Vickers’ responses, on both the day of the shooting and in its aftermath, demonstrate the powerful and close relationship between ceremonial practice, emotion and action. His “ceremonial” role gives him the authority, bravery and confidence to act under pressure, both in action and in the endurance and performance of ritual practice itself.