I can’t help but feel very tired thinking about the weeks we’ll spend debating whether Alek Minassian, the man charged in the van attack that killed 10 and injured 14, is mentally ill, or a radicalized misogynist, or a terrorist — or some combination thereof.
For some it makes no difference: people are dead, others are fighting for their lives. Many more are traumatized. Whether it was out of hatred or illness that Minassian allegedly climbed into that van and turned it into a two-tonne weapon doesn’t seem to make a difference from this vantage point.
It won’t bring the victims back or free witnesses from their trauma. What’s the point?
The very notion of fighting over these labels is exhausting, because it is all but certain it will be for naught. Few, if any, minds will be changed in the process.
Those who have decided that mental illness is to blame — based on reports that Minassian belonged to a special needs program in high school and reportedly roamed the halls meowing like a cat — will likely see any evidence of a motive through the lens of mental illness.
Those who have pegged Minassian as a violent misogynist — based on a Facebook post in which he appears to reference the “Incel Rebellion” (involuntarily celibate men) and praises misogynistic Santa Barbara, Calif., shooter Elliot Rodger — have already decided that the incident is a symptom of a dangerous online culture fuelled by fragile masculinity.
And others who have deemed Minassian a terrorist — based on the literal interpretation of what it means to spread terror — will point out our collective reluctance to use the label in cases where the perpetrator does not first yell “Allahu Akbar.”
Each characterization has merit, mind you. I’m just not sure there’s a point in trying to figure out which one is “correct.”
For one, early characterizations are often wrong. The Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., for example, was pegged as a targeted attack on the LGBT community, but that claim was debunked in court when it was revealed the shooter had no idea that Pulse was a gay nightclub. A security guard at the club recalled the gunman asking where all the women were minutes before he started shooting.
The recent high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., too, was characterized as a rampage by a member of a white supremacist group until the allegation was revealed as a deliberate hoax.
Some will argue that labelling the perpetrators of horrific attacks can help us understand who they are and their motivations, helping to effect change to prevent future attacks.
That is perhaps possible, in a limited sense. Security forces can crack down on known sources of terrorist proselytizing; mental health services can be expanded to offer resources for those desperate for help; programs and campaigns can be developed to counter some of the misogynistic hate that festers online.
But there will always be those who fall through the cracks, either by their own missteps or by those around them. The #MeToo movement, for example, has been perhaps the most resounding and persuasive international reckoning in a generation about the ways women are treated and mistreated in contemporary society. And yet in certain online chatrooms and forums, hatred toward women is just as strong as ever. Those who intend to do harm will find a way.
That’s not to say that efforts to determine and address the root cause of this attack and similar incidences are futile: only that the collective energy we waste fighting with each other over labels is a destructive way to deal with our grief.
I am certain I will be accused of mealy-mouthed centrism for taking such a view, but I’m not convinced that peddling the same tired routine for our preferred narrative — especially in situations where the motivation is still relatively ambiguous — is particularly useful. A single label rarely suffices, in any case.
The day after the van attack, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked what we can do to prevent similar tragedies. While he gave a vague response about adjusting to changing realities, the real answer, if we’re being totally honest with ourselves, is — not much.
Maybe I’m wrong, and perhaps there really is a better answer out there. But we’ll have to get past the pedantry to find it.