Denying the perpetrators their humanity may comfort us, but it won't address the causes of violence.
Of all the emotions being expressed in the wake of several recent shootings, feelings of futility and helplessness loom large as reactions to crimes most of us cannot comprehend. Why do people carry handguns to social events? Why do they fire their weapons indiscriminately into crowds of people they may not even know? How can society possibly deter a person who has decided, with premeditation or in a moment of blind passion, to settle a score with fatal force?
It’s understandable that we don’t have substantive answers to these questions. Most of us cannot imagine ourselves as the person pulling the trigger at a crowded mall or a community barbecue. The trouble is that for some people in our society, the act of carrying a weapon and using it to resolve conflict is something they consider necessary for survival. Even as we abhor and condemn that reality, we must accept that it is a feature of the city we inhabit rather than a manifestation of evil that functions completely outside social influence.
John McKay, the Liberal MP for the riding where the recent Danzig Street shooting occurred, told the Globe and Mail, “I frankly don’t know that any legislation can deal with something like this…. This is some immature individual who decided that they are going to solve their problems at the end of a barrel of a gun.” Scarborough city councillor Michael Thompson went a step further by suggesting that outreach workers in priority neighbourhoods cannot intervene in real instances of gun violence: “I don’t think the outreach workers would have prevented anything last night and I dare say they would have been running for their lives.”
Acts of gun violence represent such a departure from our social context that we sometimes imagine the remedy must address that incomprehensible moment when a civilian reaches for a handgun—that moment, and not any of the ones that preceded it. Outreach workers are not bulletproof, so they appear ineffectual in the face of supposedly senseless shootings by supposedly irrational actors. In this context, civilians withdraw from the situation and leave the police, who seem somewhat more bulletproof than the rest of us, to confront an issue that appears to be beyond our influence.
Are we prepared to accept that the average citizen has no role in confronting the violence in our communities, or permitting the conditions that give rise to it to persist? Is our fear and dehumanization of the perpetrators so strong that we see them as extra-social agents without rational motives or redeeming human qualities? For those who say yes to these questions, a perpetual state of war against the perceived enemy is a natural response, even if we know we cannot kill, capture, or drive out every person capable of committing these crimes. This same mentality allows us to congratulate ourselves when we stop spending money to reintegrate those who are jailed for gun crimes. Since they are beyond help, we can only imprison them for as long as possible to defer their inevitable return to chaos and destruction in our streets.
We should take a moment to reflect on our collective inability to assign a human impulse to the mostly young, mostly black men committing these crimes. We should also challenge commentators who claim that the “black community” is somehow better equipped to engage people who presumably have no moral compass and no connection to the wider society. The idea that black people can produce unrepentant monsters in a social vacuum, then lose control over them to the larger society’s misfortune, shows a desperation on the part of some people to distinguish their existence and humanity from the people they fear.
The criminals who are causing us to rethink the safety of our city are human beings operating in a human context. We must hold them to account, but we cannot confront them or the communities in which they live with inhumane prisons, racial-profiling measures, and acts of state-sponsored retributive violence that only reinforce our estrangement from them. We must open ourselves to the possibility that people who commit unthinkable acts of violence also have the capacity to imagine a different role for themselves in our communities. Once we deny them the ability to make a different choice, we can only ask our police, courts, and jails to counter violence with violence, and pray we are lucky enough to avoid the fallout.