When we first learned about what’s come to be known as the Toronto Van Attack, we scrutinized each scrap of information as it became available. Initially, there was a lot of back-and forth about racism and immigrants, and there was speculation surrounding the ethnicity of the perpetrator. As we learned of his identity within hours of the attack, social media turned to narratives about autism and mental health. Next, we all commented on the bravery and sensitivity of the officer who subdued the attacker without bullets. At last, as the adrenaline began to wear off, we began to hear news stories that sucked the self-righteousness straight out of us. When names, faces, and stories emerged from beneath the orange tarps, we were reminded of the real human impact – empty desk chairs, shoes collected from the street that will not be worn again. A child whose mother will not be able to comfort him now that he needs her most. We are reminded of the extent to which we are creatures of empathy.
A week later, the conversations continue to swirl around, each one assuming, if not claiming, that theirs is the topic most relevant to this tragedy. I’ve learned more than I ever hoped to know about incels. I have read articles about the dangers of social media and the dark web. Search engine prompts are primed for the word Misogyny. Do we blame men? Is the problem really cultural norms around gender? We revisited the age-old question: Are some people just plain bad?
All of this talk, I think, comes down to a couple of basic questions. Under the mourning and the loss and the displays of Toronto Strong, there is a real sense of fear. Why did this happen? And how can we prevent it in the future? In parallel, we might be asking ourselves quietly, in whispers: Is it ok that I feel bad for this guy? Is it ok to not? Is it ok to place blame? News outlets have reported that the attacker was socially isolated due to autism-related traits he displayed. It’s unclear whether or not he faced bullying, though a few of his former classmates have mentioned that people were not unfriendly towards him. He appears to have been integrated enough by the time he completed high school to make it in to a post-secondary institution, be accepted to the Canadian Armed Forces, and find employment at a college. He probably had a driver’s license. The description above might possibly remind you of a person you know – someone who is either central to your life or who exists in your periphery. Like the people who knew the van driver in his ‘before’ days, you’d probably be shocked to hear that your own quiet, quirky guy or gal might be capable of such an extreme exercise. At the same time, you know and I know that there’s a scared, sad psyche hiding behind this depravity, and that the ‘why’ of the attack can be traced to a teasing out and aggravation of a person’s biggest demons. Often, but not always, we know who the vulnerable are amongst us. Sometimes, that person is us. Daemon Fairless really summed it up when describing his ‘before’ persona in this National Post article It took me a long, hard look inward to see that that desire to feel like a man — or rather that particular kind of man — was underwritten by a deep sense of vulnerability and inadequacy.
He goes on to say:
Guys often express a whole variety of disparate emotions as anger — sadness, despair, self-loathing, loneliness — without realizing that’s what they’re doing. We have a tendency to pile all of our emotions into one overloaded basket. Maybe it’s because it feels better — more empowering, more in control — to be pissed off at something than to be sad and lonely.
In his article, structured as a letter to the attacker but also addressing every sad, lonely soul on the brink of self- or outward destruction, he implies that our history, sad as it may be, and our emotional well-being or lack thereof does not let us off the hook. We are responsible for our actions. We need to take control of our feelings.
I agree with Fairless. The driver of the van who killed ten people and injured many more needs to be held to account. The rest of us, however, also need to engage in some self-reckoning. It’s not our job to feel smug or superior to the attacker, but we are obliged to take a lesson from his troubles. The fear that we feel today stems from a lack of control, but we all have a role to play when it comes to preventing the buildup to the ‘temper tantrum’ (Fairless’ words) that we witnessed eight days ago. My proposal: Education.
I know that it’s possible that no amount of education in social and emotional well-being would have prevented last Monday’s attack. But it might have. Perhaps it’s true that, through his childhood, the attacker was never bullied and never heard a harsh word from his mainstreamed peers (though in his online communities it appears that he was surrounded by people with troubles to spare.) Despite this, he and every other student at that school and throughout the world would benefit—either directly, or by herd immunity – from an education that is specifically constructed to help them to find the goodness in themselves; to find self-acceptance and, by extension, to find grace. Along the way, they would be taught- not indirectly by absorption but by straight-up lesson planning- about compassion and acceptance.
Emotional intelligence is a life skill. It's a way of thinking, and a way of coping when things feel rough. In this case, it might have saved lives. It might have prevented just one more person from self-identifying as a troll and seeking acceptance from other people who lack the skill to believe in their own self-worth.
A few years ago, I had a mentor ask me a question: What is it that you want most in life? My unthinking answer, word-association style, was Peace on Earth.
“Oookay,” said the coach. I don’t think he was expecting such an existential response, and neither was I, but now we were both stuck with it. He regrouped and went back into professional mode. “Let’s go with that. Working backwards from Peace on Earth, what are the steps that we’re going to take to get there?” I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the session, or maybe I’ll give them to you and charge you the $250/hr that they cost me. However, you can probably see where I am going with this story. Peace on earth starts with inner peace. Inner peace, though it sounds floaty and la-la, is rooted in self-confidence. It is a hard skill. We need to work at it. We need to impress it upon our kids and our communities. When we appreciate the importance of nurturing emotional intelligence, it informs all of our other conversations about social ills and the bad things that people are capable of. I really believe that the world will be a better place if we take responsibility for the well-being of one another.
I pray that, in the future, when we hear of cities coming together in strength, it will be out of a sense of joy and celebration.