Stop Hate 2000 Newsletter October 30, 2006

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

--Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"

It has not been difficult to think of the past little while as the worst of times. It is not so evident that there have also been examples of the best of times. But as we look over the time since our last newsletter, both the best and the worst of human behavior were made clear to us.

There had already been one school shooting, at Dawson College in Montreal when we last wrote. At the time, we did not quite know enough about the story behind the story except to make a sympathetic reference on our home page to it. But there came an entire series of school shootings, and, not quite related to it, but still related for all of that, an unusually ghastly case of bullying at its worst.

So, as mentioned, we may easily have thought of it as the worst of times. But we also some of the best of times and behavior as well. And these events brought back to mind earlier and other dismal stories. the reminder may be some indication that things have been worse.

School shootings have tended to be the work of a member, or past member of the school community. We can easily think of many such examples, of which the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado remain the most famous. This can be caused by a grudge against a teacher or authority generally: it can also be the response of somebody bullied beyond reason. And we have seen copycat shootings when they occur.

The first of this series, at Montreal's Dawson College would have seemed something of the kind. But then it became clear that the shooter had no connection with the place or any known connection with anyone there. At first it was speculated that he had been a loner, an outcast in high school, and that he finally took his anger out six or seven years later. But then, one might ask, why six or seven years afterwards? And it became more clear that he had not been so much bullied as somebody who completely pulled into himself, into a world none but he inhabited. All his family were quiet and kept to themselves: they were recent immigrants to the country, and rather shy by nature. It was easy to confuse one with the other. What the rest of the family did not know, least of all the parents, that this young man was living entirely in another world, fed over long nights at his computer, uttering dark words about a love of death, and thinking dark thoughts about the same. And showing an immense interest in what semi-automatic rifles could do.

There was a lot of soul-searching as to what makes this kind of murderer, and how one can tell them before they happen. Unhappily, the conclusion was that there isn't any good way to do it. The shooter was one of the two who died, and his motives are particularly murky. The best guess is that he simply went after Dawson College because it was the nearest place where he could find people his own age who were making successes of their lives. Convinced that he was never going to be a success, he was determined to ensure as few as possible would do the opposite.

To that extent, it was a hate crime, and it may explain a lot of such crimes. It has always seemed to one of us who used to be at the receiving end of schoolyard bullying that the source of anger was an envy of another for whom things came too easily. perhaps that was the real hate which fueled the murder which started this site, that of Matthew Shepard, the eighth anniversary of which occurred in this last month.

There was also a lot of soul-searching over the police response. There had been another school shooting in Montreal in the early 1990s, where the police had done what had been standard procedure until then: to secure the perimeter, and then try to talk the angry person down to reason. It had been similarly tried at Columbine. The lesson learned seemed to be that you had to confront the perpetrator right away, and take the chance of whatever happened. The earlier examples suggested that holding off simply gave these people more time to kill. Thus there were 17 at L'Ecole Polytechnique and 14 at Columbine High.

Given the chance, the gunman (he was a man) would surely have killed many more, including some of the several he wounded. He was able only to kill one, Anastasia de Sousa. It is her name which we should recall, and nobody else's. He family are hoping to start a foundation for a scholarship in her name. Anastasia was one of many whom he first wounded. He had the time to finish her off, but that was all the time he was given.

For a time, it appeared that the lives of some other students were also in danger, and the life of one in particular. We are now happy to report that all the wounded (there were in excess of 20) are going to recover, at least physically.

By comparison with the earlier shootings in Montreal, this was extremely fortunate. And this may have had something to do with what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of human nature". The thoughts, hopes, prayers and support the wounded received had much to do with their survival. Those same thoughts and hopes and prayers have helped the de Sousa family as well. These things matter.

The Columbine High School shootings set off copycat examples. We noted one at the time, one in Taber, Alberta which occurred about a week afterwards. There were such examples this time. Perhaps we have learned a few things: many did not happen because friends of students who make threats are now inclined to take them very seriously and report them. There were quite a few examples of shootings which were prevented by that means.

Yet there were one or two. They were not well reported because of more terrible events. They conformed to the pattern of angry young males, who were either mad at a community which rejected them, or who had personal grievances against some individual. It is a terrible thing t say that there were only two or three deaths resulting, but such had been the way with such things that they almost always involved several deaths per incident. That may be because we have been learning better how to handle these horrors.

There were two incidents, however, which were much worse, and which by any standard, can only be described as hate crimes. They both reflected a prejudice to which we, on this site, may not have paid enough attention.

Since we mentioned an earlier shooting in Montreal, at L'Ecole Polytechnique in the early 1990s, we should review it, as it related to the two most horrible examples.

We shall not dignify the perpetrator by mentioning his name. He was another example of a vainglorious individual who blamed his own troubles on a group that he hated. He hated women, and especially women who were getting themselves educated. He descended upon that school because it was an engineering school, invaded a class with an automatic rifle, and then ordered all the male students to leave, and then, having made a harangue against feminists and females, shot as many of the female students as he could. He managed to kill 17 before he was killed, and he wounded quite a few more.

There seemed to be such a case in Colorado, not twenty miles away from Columbine High, where a drifter similarly invaded a high school, and took several female students hostage. His motivation was sexual assault: all his hostages were so assaulted. That there was only one killed - "only" one has its own terrible sound to it - was fortunate. The reason for the perpetrator's animus against women will not be further known: it was necessary to confront and kill him before more were killed.

And so it came to Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Much was made of the fact that it occurred in an Amish community, and we have to avoid confusion here. The perpetrator here had nothing against the Amish. He was out to hurt and kill small girls. He chose this school because it was small, he would know how many there were, and they were a group which would not fight back. But it was girls he was after: he ordered the boys out, and let two adult women go free. He meant to hold all the girls prisoner for several days, rape them all, and then kill them.

Again, the police took the new tactic of confronting him directly. All the girls were killed or wounded, but instead of thirteen being dead, six have survived. Rather remarkably, a seventh remains alive, although she is not expected to live, and has been taken off life supports.

The man who did this was under the delusion that he had abused two younger female relatives much earlier (it appears that he hadn't, although he may have been tempted), and that he thought a young daughter's death was a judgement by God on him for his earlier misdeeds. He felt the desire for young girls again, and thought assaulting and killing a classroom full of them would be an excellent way of getting back at God.

He may have been motivated by the earlier incident in Colorado. Again, we will never really know.

But if it was the worst of times, it was also the best of times. After he had tied the girls up, the oldest persuaded him to start with them, and kill them first, with the idea that it would buy the younger children some time. In fact, this worked: he couldn't shoot them all fatally before the police killed him. The older girls saved several lives. And the man showed a certain confusion by alternating between damning God and asking the girls to pray for him. They promised they would, and the survivors consider that it is a promise to be kept.

It has been since noted that the Amish community have stated their forgiveness of the killer and took great efforts to reach out to the killer's family. This is heroic, under any circumstances. We mentioned a shooting at Taber one week after Columbine: Dale Lang, the father of the one victim, did the same. But he also tells how hard it was for him to do it. Both were strongly motivated by religious principle: religious principles are not always bad ones! Mr. Lang is a minister: the Amish are best understood as individuals who grow up in a very isolated community, but who, at the time of becoming adults, are sent into the world to decide whether they should choose the greater world, or return to their community. Those who come back are much like monks of old. the reinforcement of community of people who have felt they have made the choice willingly helps.

But it remains heroic. It is heroic because the pain and hurt and anger are still there, and most of us can not handle those things and profess forgiveness. Some of us think that we make the mistake of saying we've forgiven somebody when we have only felt an obligation to do so. Real forgiveness and real reconciliation can (and usually do) take much longer. That we fail to do so is easier to understand than finding a way to do it.

Mr. Lang, and some other survivors of murdered victims have perhaps given a small key to us: that if they retained their anger, they then let the killers take over their lives. If they were to recover their lives, they had to make the effort to set it aside.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of Matthew Shepard's heroes, wrote an entire book on the point, which he entitled "No Future Without Forgiveness". That may be, but it's hard.

And so we come a near-tragedy. In Winnipeg, a number of children aged 8-12 were hanging out with nothing to do. Two 12 year old girls persuaded two boys, aged 8 or to start a fire in an old shed. The girls threatened to beat the boys up. A 14 year-old by name of Brian McKay, who is seriously crippled, was attracted to this event. The girls though it would be great fun to shove him into the burning shed and bar the door. Again, they bullied the two younger boys into doing it. The boys apparently thought the joke had gone far enough, but couldn't figure out how to unbar the door. Fortunately, an adult came on the scene at that time, originally to stop the vandalism, but to break in and save Brian.

Then again, we sometime act in the best of ways. The boys' mothers forced them to visit Brian and his grandmother. There was general forgiveness all around, and the boys have become good friends of Brain's. Grudges tend to be easier to abandon when you're young, and the boys were made to understand how much harm they had nearly caused.

There remains the issue of the two girls, but that's a story still working itself out.

So when we see forgiveness happen, really happen, perhaps we may reflect that miracles do happen. And the best of things can happen at the worst of times.

And so, indeed "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

 


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