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Three Deaths Matter More Than a Killer's Motives

Posted: 06/06/2014 12:31 pm

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So here we are, Moncton. We're today's edition of water cooler discussion across the country. It's our turn for the world's sympathy, news vans, wild speculation, dark jokes, gun debates and even a Wikipedia page devoted to our tragedy. Our small, peaceful city has been dragged into a much larger and rapidly growing community of tragedies, all with one thing in common: for some amount of time, no matter how brief or long, we've been held in the grip of a young man with a gun.

Our story mirrors those before it: another man in his 20s takes up arms against his imagined oppressors. Another young man acts out fantasies -- fantasies of power, respect, and, in its truest sense, terrorism -- that too many like him secretly harbour, alone and in silence, while collecting guns.

But why is it always young men? And why do they do it? For so long we've blamed violent video games because the killers play them. So do almost all men born after 1980. Before that, we blamed rock music because the killers used the musicians' words for their own, despite the songs being played countless times by countless people who never caused such pain. And before that, we blamed Hollywood because the killers watched action and horror movies, along with hundreds of millions of others.

We pull these threads with desperation because often we're left with nothing but a detached young man living out his life alone in a jail cell, or just a body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. We pore over Facebook posts full of lyrics from heavy metal songs and rambling blog posts full of cliché and anger. We try to divine the reason for these tragedies in the same way these young men did when they observed and were inspired by their predecessors.

When we hunt for reason in madness, we sometimes forget correlation does not mean causation. Rather than being a product of the things they consume, perhaps people capable of such atrocities reach into our otherwise stable cultural exchange and cherry-pick tools to harness and express their frustrations.

Tools like guns.

These totems of strength in our age, some hard to find, some hard to fire, some downright illegal to own, built a culture centred on the gun's intoxicating power. It runs parallel to that of those who sarcastically call it "gun culture." Its members are mostly men, mostly white, whose identities are inseparably linked to mechanical devices engineered to launch projectiles quickly and cause great devastation.

The conversations that inevitably happen in the wake of such tragedies are always unproductive. Gun control advocates stretch blame onto responsible and respectable gun owners and collectors, saying tragedies like this wouldn't happen if troubled young men didn't have access to firearms. Gun owners respond with indignation, saying the only thing they have in common with these young men is the device in their hands, and that if it wasn't a gun, it would have been something else. And it's true. A hobbyist isn't defined by those who use the focus of his hobby to cause pain and destruction, whether it be guns or model trains.

But model trains aren't valued by their efficiency in destroying targets, particularly people. They aren't smuggled across the border between Maine and New Brunswick in droves by otherwise law-abiding collectors who the Department of Public Safety calls "an important segment" of the illegal gun trade in Canada. They aren't hoarded by the socially marginalized as a sort of adult security blanket, carefully up-kept for the long-fantasized day they will be used against the enemy.

"I don't have those fantasies," many gun owners say. "But if this lunatic tried to get into my house, he'd find himself a bullet between his eyes."

The irony is likely lost on them.

"He must be crazy," many will say. "Mental issues." This is often true. Mental illness is so prevalent that some researchers put its rate of occurrence at one in five. But those who suffer from serious mental illness not related to substance abuse account for three to five per cent of all violent crimes. This means those suffering from mental illness are more likely to be the victims when a mass shooting occurs than to cause any violence in the first place.

Another theory posits the meticulous plotting and preparation is a result of long-held anger and frustration manifested in one thunderous act. This explanation, combined with elements of the others, makes the most colloquial sense. The evolutionary scream of masculinity when a young man finds himself marginalized. Testosterone demanding he be in control, command respect, display power. Our society's reaction has proved profound and insistent: the most efficient way to transition from unfamous to infamous --- loser to legend -- is mass murder.

And still many people, particularly men, believe in 'venting,' the long-proved false adage that hard feelings can be relieved by expressing our rage outward. The cure, so they say, exists outside the individual; like bloodletting, just get the badness out by any means necessary, and you'll feel better.

That is, if you disregard the psychological studies that show 'venting' actually worsens a person's outlook. And that those who vent almost always find themselves more and more frustrated as the cycle intensifies. And that a harmful habit is formed when routinely tying frustration to violence. And that connecting violence to problem-solving causes outbursts like the one we're experiencing right now.

Despite all the old talking points, we still don't know why young men take up guns and shoot innocent people. But here's what we know: these young men are always frustrated. Their targets are rarely specific individuals, but rather cultural symbols the men are lashing out against. In Connecticut, children were attacked because their murderer saw them as culturally cherished objects vulnerable to his power. In Moncton's tragedy, the killer sought those we trust to enforce our law to prove his power over it.
Here's what else we know: the killer in our city has been stopped, a few hours after another young man with a gun murdered one and injured three others at a university in Seattle. Both cities are now just two more lines on a growing list, alongside Columbine and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook and countless others. Strangers will say things about our tragedy like "Only three dead?" or "At least it was only cops." They'll say these things because mass shootings have become normalized to the point that our tragedy, the senseless murder of three of us, is now nothing more than common gristle for our daily tragedy mill.

Three of us are dead. Three of us who bought groceries from Sobeys on Vaughan Harvey Boulevard and went to Wildcats games at the Coliseum. Three of us who hold our kids when nightmares scare them from their beds. Three of us are dead and gone because of a young man with a gun. Again.

The world will say the same old things about guns, and mental illness and angry young men with something to prove. They'll say the same things about the Seattle killing. Then they'll sit and wait for another tragedy somewhere else. And when the same conversations come up, we'll nod knowingly.
Three of us are dead. And once again, we don't know why.

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