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A shooting, many questions, no answers

Shortly after midnight on Friday, July 20th, a heavily-armed man burst into a movie theatre and opened fire on the crowd, killing twelve people and wounding nearly 60. This latest act of mass violence in the United States sparked yet another national conversation about the need for gun control, and questions about what could prompt a person with an otherwise-bright future to commit such an atrocity. I lack the necessary knowledge (and the energy) to comment much further about this particular shooting other than to say that I obviously wish it hadn’t happened, and that something must be done to make such events more rare. I do not believe that more guns are the answer to the problem, but that idea appears to have some serious currency in the United States, so I guess take that for what it’s worth.

Such acts are incredibly rare here in Canada (especially compared to our southern neighbour), and yet Toronto has recently been visited by a pair of public shootings that have sparked our own national conversation. The first shooting occurred at the beginning of last month in the food court of the city’s largest shopping mall. Two people, the apparent targets of the shooter, were killed. The motivation appears to be related to gang activity. At the beginning of last week, Toronto was once again visited by the spectre of violence at the hands of armed gunmen:

Police sent out a news release on Thursday evening advising that 19-year-old Nahom Tsegazab of Toronto had been charged with the reckless discharge of a firearm. Const. Wendy Drummond told CBC News that Tsegazab’s charge is linked to people who were injured, but not killed, in the Danzig Street shooting on Monday night.

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The shooting occurred just after 10:40 p.m. on Monday, in the midst of an outdoor street party that police say was attended by at least 100 people. A 14-year-old Toronto teenager and a 23-year-old man from Ajax, Ont., died in the shooting.

It perhaps bears pointing out that these kinds of shootings happen in American cities on a much more regular basis, even accounting for the difference in population. Canada’s violent crime rate is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1/10th of the United States’ (in fairness, the American homicide rate is a paltry double that of Canada’s, and both rates have been declining in recent years). It would be a gross oversimplification to lay all the blame at the feet of anti-gun legislation, but I have no doubt that lack of access to firearms plays a major role in the scarcity of gun crime. As such, when these kinds of events occur, they are not simply a local matter – they resonate across the entire country.

And whenever tragedy strikes a country, we begin to search for answers. Why did this happen? How can we protect ourselves? Who could do such a thing? And sadly in this case, at least for that last question, it’s not who you might think:

Nahom Tsegazab, 19, was charged with reckless discharge of a firearm on Thursday. Police said the Toronto man was among those injured on Monday night and remains in custody in the hospital where he is being treated. Police confirmed he was the “person of interest” they referred to immediately after the shooting.

Tasheka Mason, a youth worker in Scarborough, said she has known Mr. Tsegazab for years, since her godsister met him in high school. Since then, her godsister and Mr. Tsegazab have dated and he helped out Ms. Mason with programs she runs in the community, she said. The charge has taken them aback, Ms. Mason said. “This is somebody I’ve worked with for multiple years of his life, not to tell you he’s the perfect kid,” she said. “But as far as I’m concerned… [he's] somebody who was very intelligent, very sophisticated… always laughing, always talking to people.”

Why would someone with roots in the community, with an obvious connection to the people in the neighbourhood, who was seemingly well-regarded and destined for good things pull out and shoot in a crowd of his neighbours?

Beyond those immediate questions of self-preservation and desire for narrative, there is also an overwhelming need for justice. The people who are responsible for such destruction – not only of life, but the community’s sense of well-being also – must be held accountable for their actions. This is the proper role of law enforcement – a job made difficult by the deep distrust and antipathy that police have fostered over the years:

Dozens of people, many of them women and their children, walked to reclaim the neighbourhood, chanting for peace and at one point taking a pledge to take a stand and make a difference. The need to rally the community to come forward has become a common topic since the shooting.

Neighbourhood resident Susan Fullerton said people are reluctant to come forward. “The first thing the police would have to do is tell the people how they’re going to help them after they talk,” she said. “If the police is going to give people some major guarantee that you are going to be protected and what you say to me will stay here or whatever, quite likely people will talk. But I think that black people feel to a large extent nobody cares.”

I’ve spoken before about what happens when a police force allows themselves to forget that their most valuable tool is the trust and cooperation of the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. In a high-profile case like this one, there’s going to be even more pressure from on high to get two convictions, and without the leads provided by eyewitnesses, police are going to reap what they have sown with regard to the community’s unwillingness to work with a police force they do not believe has their best interests in mind.

But beyond the question of “why did it happen”, beyond “how do we catch those responsible” is a question that I am far more interested in: “how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?” This is a question for policy-makers and legislators and community members and police and all Canadians to answer. This is a question that should be the foremost responsibility of any person concerned with public safety. And a consensus seems to be building:

Our society has created low-income housing communities to support our most vulnerable citizens, which was and continues to be a positive step. But we stopped short of providing the support needed to move this population out of vulnerability and into a position of strength. Citizens who live in low-income communities may be new to the country and need some time to adjust to their new lives and to get to know the systems. They may be single parents who cannot afford to raise their children, put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads at the same time. Or they may have physical and mental-health challenges that can minimize their earning potential. With intersecting issues such as these, we cannot just provide low-income housing without other supports. The consequences can be catastrophic.

We must resist the temptation to treat violence as its own encapsulated problem. Violence is often – not always, mind you, but often – a symptom of an underlying problem. Catching and punishing the men responsible for this crime will do nothing to prevent the next shooting. It is not as though before they drew their guns they stopped and considered the Criminal Code and decided that it was worth it if the sentence was 10 years, but not if it was 12 years. The only way to prevent this kind of violence is to address its antecedents:

Toronto has seen 25 shootings and four killings in three days, as well as other gun-related deaths in some of the most public and perceived safe spaces – a community barbecue, ice cream parlour, primary school playground and popular downtown mall – all shattering the community’s sense of security.

While police have made some arrests and are continuing their investigations, they are also beginning to implement a pilot project aimed at stopping violent crimes before they happen. It’s revolutionary in its simplicity: Get existing community agencies working together, track results and use evidence to move forward.

The model comes from Prince Albert, Sask., where the program is turning heads and getting results. Adopted from a successful plan in Glasgow, Scotland, it doesn’t involve more officers making more arrests, cracking down on miscreants or handing out more punitive sentences. Instead, it will assess risk factors in individuals, families and places to prevent people from offending or becoming victims of crime.

Aside from simple adjustments to policy (although those will help), there are formidably large and existential challenges facing us if we want to solve the larger problems facing us. In addition to acting collectively to make legislative steps, we will need to take a serious and unflinching look at what kind of society we want to build. As much as I’d love to quote this entire essay, I’ll leave you with the best bit:

For decades in Canada, when the availability of firearms was low, violence associated with the illicit drug economy was relatively muted. Now, for reasons we do not fully understand, firearms are becoming increasingly available. Drug economy violence has been ratcheted up.

So we have a poisonous mixture: A pistolized culture of masculinity. A socio-economic structure of exclusion. An illicit opportunity structure in the market for illegal drugs. And rising levels of gun availability on the streets.

There is probably even more to it than that, since society’s reactions are often one-sided. Some people advocate cracking down on the drug economy. Some advocate drug decriminalization. Some say banning guns or bullets will work, or that we need stiffer penalties. Others want better social programs.

These policy struggles, playing out in the context of fiscal crisis, are most often discussed in hyper-masculine terms. Looking for the cheapest bang for the buck, we end up “combatting gangs” or “fighting crime” while going to “war on drugs.” These amount to attempts at repression. But repression does not solve problems; it displaces them. This suggests that the solutions become part of the problem.

This issue is extremely complex, but these speculations are the start of a plausible explanation to what has been taking place in Canada for some time. But they are only a start.

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