Polytechnique and the media

Twenty years ago today, well, you know what happened. You won’t be able to read a newspaper, watch a TV newscast or go online today without being reminded of it in text or in video.

But even though we know what happened, how it happened and why it happened, 20 years later, there’s still a debate going on about its larger meaning, as if the actions of some crazy murderer have to be put in a larger context.

As part of a project to remember what’s been dubbed the Montreal Massacre (Wikipedia has settled on the more precise “École Polytechnique massacre” – the school’s name so synonymous with this one event that many can’t think of it without of one without being reminded of the other), filmmaker Maureen Bradley uploaded a video she created in 1995 criticizing the media for its coverage of the horrific night:

As someone who has been both critical of “mainstream” media and a part of it, I take exception to some points, which I think are a lot more nuanced than Bradley makes them out to be.

She criticizes Barbara Frum for suggesting this has little difference from other cases of mass violence, and that it shouldn’t be treated differently just because it targetted women. Bradley says Frum denied “the political nature of this event”, which I don’t think Frum was doing. I think her point was that violence is wrong, whether it’s against 14 women, 14 men or anything in between. You may disagree with that position, even I’m not entirely in agreement, but it was a valid point.

Bradley then criticizes a photo, taken by Gazette photographer Allen McInnis, of one of the victims slumped in a chair, dead, which was printed on the front page of the newspaper the next day. She decried it as sensational, unnecessary and gratuitous. The decision of whether to publish the photo (and similar photos after similar events) was the cause of much debate, and is discussed in many journalism ethics courses. (The Ryerson Review of Journalism dedicated an entire article to it in 1991). But the line is not between needless sensationalistic exploitation and subdued respect for the dead. Photos of violence are, above all, real. They’re shocking because the events are shocking. To refuse to print them is to deny the gruesome nature of the event, to reduce it to the dry, detached “14 women killed by gunman” that we’ve become desensitized to. To be effective at provoking a reaction, they must be used sparingly, reserved for those events so shocking, so terrible that we cannot sensor them. Otherwise people become desensitized to the pictures as much as they were to the words. But the Polytechnique massacre was clearly one of those events.

Journalists don’t like covering deaths. They don’t enjoy taking pictures of crime scenes, or going up to the homes of family members and asking for interviews hours or even minutes after they’ve found out what happened. They don’t dream about the scoops they’ll get or the awards they’ll win. They do their jobs because they have to. And they have to because the alternative – ignoring the story, pretending it didn’t happen or sugar-coating it by hiding the graphic details – isn’t acceptable.

Bradley then criticizes the use of the term “daughters” as some misogynistic term that belittles the women killed that day, and she criticizes the media for playing down anger as a reasonable reaction to these events, suggesting those who react that way are hard-core feminists who are out of the mainstream. I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with that, though it would surprise me to learn that was anyone’s intention.

I don’t think there’s anger today about what happened on Dec. 6, 1989. Who can we be angry at? Not the man who pulled the trigger, because he died that day by his own hand. Not his mother, who has had to live with this tragedy for 20 years now. Not the school, or the victims, or the government, or the maker of the gun, or the police or anyone else. We can’t even be angry at the media, as Bradley seems to be, for they are merely the messenger. They did not exaggerate what happened nor did they take pleasure in the horror of others as is being implied. Anger at a gruesome photo or the wall-to-wall coverage is an appropriate response, but the anger should be at what is being described, not the fact that it is being described. And since the man responsible for the event is dead, instead we can only be mad at some abstract concept of violence against women.

Despite my criticisms, Bradley’s video is worth watching, as is this more recent video which is more emotional and less analytical. She’s right in the grander scheme, that this is a political event, and that anger is an appropriate response to it.

Fortunately, many people have put that reaction to good use. Groups have sprung up to promote gun control. Female victims of violence have better services (though it’s still not perfect). And for at least one day every year, we remember the struggle against violence against women, in the hope that something like this will never happen again.

What do women think?

On the front page of Saturday’s Gazette is a note that, for that issue, the paper went out of its way to speak to women wherever possible. In some cases, the subject is clearly a man and that’s that. But there are many others where you need a quote from an expert, a doctor, a member of a certain group. It could be anyone, really. For one day, reporters decided that one person should be a woman. Even if they didn’t say much, even if what they said was the exact same thing the man next to them would have said, they had a voice for one day. That man could wait until tomorrow.

One vs. 14

Bradley was right about another thing: Far too much attention was (and is) focused on the killer, and far too little on the lives of the 14 women who died that day. Bradley implicates the media, but the truth is mere practicality.

Sadly, the best thing that man could do that day to keep his name alive was to kill as many women as possible. Everyone remembers Anastasia De Sousa, because she was the only victim to die during the 2006 Dawson shooting. But few people remember all 14 names of the victims of Polytechnique, because it’s a long list to memorize. The killer’s name, meanwhile, had only 10 letters.

At work tonight, I saw a coworker cut out the names of those 14 women, which are on the cover of Sunday’s Gazette. She said she makes it a point to leave them in her car on the anniversary each year to remember them:

Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Barbara Maria Klucznik, Maryse Leclair, Annie St. Arneault, Maud Haviernick, Michèle Richard, Maryse Laganière, Anne-Marie Edward, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier and Annie Turcotte. (CBC has their biographies)

Maybe their deaths were senseless. Maybe they were political. Maybe both. All we know is that they deserved a better fate than to be mere items on a list, and to be less famous than the man who took their lives.

Blame the media for that if you like, but it’s a simple numbers game. It’s human nature. And I don’t know how to fix it.

13 thoughts on “Polytechnique and the media

  1. Dave K

    Every time I read the list of victims, it always strikes me how there are two Barbara, two Maryse, two Annie and two Anne-Marie. I know it’s odd to notice that… Maybe focusing on such a specific thing helps insulate me from the horror of it all. Thanks for writing on this subject.

  2. wkh

    I have said this many times in many places but I am DONE remembering the murder. All that does is commemorate what the killer did. From now on, this is Send Your Daughter to Engineering School Day to me. I think that’s a waaaay better tribute to the women who died than continually trotting out the story of an evil man and essentially turning him into a martyr for misogynists everywhere.

    1. Tim

      An excellent idea. That’s how we should remember this massacre, by positively enabling the group he targeted. At least then these deaths may have some positive meaning.

  3. NS

    True, like you say, it is a numbers game with remembering the one instead of the 14. One small, small way to combat it is to not mention the murderer’s name, like you did.

    1. Tim

      I don’t agree with the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named approach. That would only generate more taboo, more questions, more interest, and regrettably, more of a sense of martyrdom from those who still support his demented positions on women.

  4. Maureen Bradley

    Wow, thanks for your thoughtful analysis.
    And thanks for an intelligent discussion and dialogue.
    Wonder if 30 or 40 years will seem relevant. Why did 20 seem so profound.
    Great blog.
    Very best, Maureen

  5. jean.naimard

    What to say?
    Of course, media always carries an agenda. The agenda of the Gazette, the agenda of the CBC, the agenda of Barbara Frum threaded through CBC’s, the agenda of everyone involved.
    And, of course, Maureen Bradley’s.
    This society has given women the short end of the stick.
    Most organized religions have, for millenia, subservied women to men. But in my experience, women are superior. Many cultures, deemed to be “primitive” give women more political power; many native nations here are run by the mother of clans (such as the mohawks), but this flies in the face of the unnatural democracy Canada has been imposing on the reserves, with the result that the chiefs are those who can convince the most friends to vote for them (because the mother of clans never run in those elections), hence the graft and corruption one too often see in native communities..
    In a sexual relationship, it’s the women that runs the show. It’s the woman who decides the colour of the curtains or of the ceiling, it’s the woman who runs ths budget and it’s the woman that has the headaches. The husband brings home the bacon, and in case of headache, he has to beat the meat.
    This is how mankind has been genetically geared since we got down from the trees. This is not just a stereotype for comics or editorial cartoons.
    Men are spewing forth their genes all over the place, and the women labour the babies. This is what Evolution has decided for us.
    Eventually, men managed to subvert society with organized religion that whiz-banged some bullshit superiority of men over woman, and they started to run the show. So for several thousand years, women have gotten the short end of the stick.
    And, our national experience as a case in point, when you are told that you are shit for a sufficient period of time, you begin to believe it.
    50 years ago, our society was not much different from the taliban’s: women were veiled, they stayed at home, they took care of the children and 50 years ago, they have been voting for only 18 years. 35 years ago, a cousin of mine went to a high-school where boys could smoke anywhere, anytime, but the first time girls were caught, it was a $50 fine. The second time, it was the door.
    It’s not for nothing that, as shown in Maureen’s film, the funeral ceremony was presided by men only: the institution that “celebrated” is one of the many that has deemed women to be inferior.
    Yes, women are superior from men. Look at the rate boys drop out from school. Several girls I went to school with narrowly escaped death in Polytechnique that day; none I knew were hurt. All of them are successful professionals nowadays, much more successful than myself (but again, my definition of success is not the same as their, nor yours).
    My girlfriend owns several houses which she rents. She held a big job in a big insurance company, which she just quit (must me from my bad left-leaning influence) and lives off her houses. Granted, her upbringing was that she should have a good job and make money, and having houses is a good way to do that. Myself, well, I gave up on the idea of ever owning a house long ago, and fixing my girlfriend’s comfort me in my choice!
    Yes, women are superior. They are different from men. They have to be: they have the responsibility for the offspring once the stud has done it’s job. So this calls for different thinking, more long-term (‘I have to see to the offspring”) than the studs’ (’hmmm, who could I inseminate tonight???”). So, yes, women will do many things better than men, and it’s not dishes (how many great chefs are women, anyways?), nor dresses (how many great fashion designers are women anyways?), nor decorating the house (how many great inferior decorators are women anyways?). They can be capable administrators, directors or even heads of State. Heck, the largest empire of History at it’s height was headed by a woman! (And it still is).
    Men are clinging to the fiction that they are superior, but clearly, that notion is running on inertia. Their cultural expectations cannot make them cope with the headache, and that women are not wired to spread their genes around.
    So some snap and kill when they can’t cope. You can thank ignorance for that.
    Ignorance is the worst thing to befall Humanity. Thus organized ignorance is a crime upon Humanity. Deliberately organized ignorance must be eliminated as soon as possible.
    And it’s no surprise that it is organized ignorance that killed the most people throughout History.
    And in this case, it’s organized ignorance of women’s exact nature that killed.
    Enough ignorance, vous êtes pas tannés de mourir, bande de caves???

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I love how you combat stereotypes with baseless generalizations that say the opposite.

      Women are not superior to men. They are not better or worse. They are not more or less smart. They are different, and society treats them differently. That is all.

  6. Maria Gatti

    I’m glad they are speaking of the Polytechnique massacre rather than the “Montréal” massacre, as alas there have been two school shootings since then. The Concordia Engineering Massacre is even worse in terms of remembering the killer, not the victims.

    Of course it doesn’t matter whether massacre victims are women or men, black or white etc. as they are human beings of equal value. But we do remember this as a deliberate misogynist act, as we remember racist massacres such as pogroms or lynchings.

    The men and women at the event this afternoon were crying out “Plus jamais!” Oh, perhaps that goes back centuries, but it will always refer to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it was reprised a generation later at the southern end of South America “Nunca Mas” against the vicious military dictatorships. then returned to Europe in 1986 in a million-strong protest against the killing of a student of North African origin during some student protests (he wasn’t involved; just there and perhaps the wrong colour).

    What is really disgusting is the blogs saluting the killer.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’m glad they are speaking of the Polytechnique massacre rather than the “Montréal” massacre, as alas there have been two school shootings since then. The Concordia Engineering Massacre is even worse in terms of remembering the killer, not the victims.

      The difference with Concordia, of course, is that the killer lived. There was a trial, his name stayed in the media long after the killings.

      The name, though, bothers me a bit, if only because nobody can think about Polytechnique without thinking of the shootings. The film by that name certainly didn’t improve matters. It’s not the school’s fault that a crazy man walked in and killed 14 women. Concordia doesn’t have its horrific shootings in the first page of Google results for its name.

      What is really disgusting is the blogs saluting the killer.

      All sorts of things on the Internet go for the most unpopular opinion as some sort of adolescent rebellion, or even just to attract that shock value. What I find disgusting are people who debate them as if they have a legitimate point to make.

  7. Maria Gatti

    Well, I suppose that person is not TECHNICALLY a scab as he is a freelancer, though I sure as hell wouldn’t write anything these days for Le Journal de Montréal, although I have far more need for a little extra cash than he does.

    Actually, this is exactly the line Martineau took in 1989 just after the mass killing: “Pas parce que je trouve que l’utilisation de Poly est une «récupération féministe», comme se plaisent à dire les masculinistes radicaux”. He was going on and on about feminists using the massacre for political ends. (i.e. opposing violence against women). One of the far and few benefits of being an old fart is that I remember that clearly. Yes, of course I wanted to kill him then. But the difference between relatively-normal people and psychopaths is not that “normals” don’t have feelings of violence and rage against others but that we lack the psychopathic need to “act out” such feelings.

    I have so often heard the “women are superior” line, usually in conjunction with attempts to deny us full legal and social equality. Women aren’t superior, morally or in any other way. Look at Thatcher.

    I do think a society that favours equality for all human beings, men or women, of whatever colour or ethnic or economic background, is superior to one that is sexist, racist or classist, simply because it can draw on more talents and let them all flower. Not because we are the slightest bit better than men.

    People who have been oppressed often fight back by convincing themselves they are somehow “better” due to the need to fight for their rights or for any advancement – as per the old joke that Black people are still not equal in the US as an African-American as stupid as Bush could never become president. But those are understandable defence mechanisms, not a basis for an egalitarian society.


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