Learning from Toronto

Six days after Alek Minassian used a rented van to kill 10 people seriously injuring 15 others, Toronto is returning to normal. As mentioned in an earlier editorial, mental illness may well have contributed to the attack – one eyewitness said Minassian looked like he was “playing a video game, trying to kill as many people as possible.” This possibility has, in turn, shed light on some of the darker corners of the Internet. While Toronto police say that Minassian’s motives remain unclear, misogynistic rage seems an increasingly likely explanation. Shortly before the attack, he posted a FaceBook message that referred to Elliott Rodger, a man who shot six people dead in Isla Vista, California four years ago in the name of “incels” – involuntary celibates – a now prohibited Reddit group that blames its pain on women.

With retrospect, this scenario sounds even stranger than the initial speculations, but those should not be lightly forgotten. Social media was rife with irresponsible speculation almost immediately after news of the attack was aired. Wild theories were rampant long before any relevant facts were known. Many deemed the rampage an act of terror and “proved” this by citing similar incidents in Europe. The suspect’s reportedly “dark” appearance – in fact, Minassian is a light-skinned Armenian Christian – also fuelled talk that he was a foreigner, a terrorist, possibly a Syrian refugee. This idea elicited comments on Canada’s naive immigration policies and some Americans posted patronizing messages to this effect. Canadians, by contrast, largely avoided speculation, choosing instead to offer support to the victims and reaffirm the city’s commitment to diversity.

During a dark moment, Toronto’s response was exemplary. No public officials leapt to conclusions and their statements stuck to the facts. This held true at a national level too. When the Federal Minister of Public Safety addressed the media, he said: “The events that happened on the street behind us are horrendous. But they do not appear to be connected in any way to national security, based on the information available to us at this time.” Such restraint is a striking contrast to what usually happens in the United States.

The arresting officer’s disciplined de-escalation of his encounter with Minassian was no less impressive. Switching off his siren, Ken Lam stepped away from the police car with his weapon drawn but then refused to overreact to Minassian’s goading. He even holstered his weapon once he realised that the suspect was unarmed. In July 2013, the Toronto police mishandled a much less threatening incident and fatally shot a knife-wielding 19-year-old on a streetcar, so this calm response was never a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, it shows trained policemen can handle potentially dangerous situations without lethal force – something that underscores the truth of the claims the Black Lives Matter have made about the police in North America.

Toronto’s moving appeal to its faith in diversity was borne out by subsequent accounts of the victims. The Globe and Mail reports that those identified so far include: “a Jordanian national visiting family, a Sri Lankan immigrant single mother, a South Korea-born chef working at a Brazilian steakhouse chain, a cancer survivor, an 80-year-old grandmother, a 23-year-old student and an investment-firm employee devoted to charity work.” With characteristic generosity, Torontonians, using the hashtag #TorontoStrong, launched a crowdfunding campaign for the victims. In less than a week it has raised $900,000.

Collectively these events show that “man’s inhumanity to man” is never a true picture of who we are. Murderers and the criminally insane – whether or not they are terrorists – are outliers, terrifying exceptions to the rule. They also serve as a reminder that we should remain wary of politicians or news organizations that suggest otherwise, or exploit incidents like these for their own ends.

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