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.