Alek Minassian is a murderer who did a terrible thing – full stop; no question. Not unexpectedly, there is a lot of hatred directed at this man, and it’s not unwarranted. He drove a van through pedestrians in Toronto, killing at least 10. Hatred and rage about Alek Minassian are understandable, but – here is the uncomfortable part – hatred can also be problematic. Because unlike the monsters that exist in fairy tales and movies, human monsters of the real-life variety aren't one-dimensional. And when there’s so much anger involved, it can be hard to look at a bigger picture.
Dozens of "motives," many unconfirmed, for his behaviour have been put forward: He is an anti-social loner. He is a techy geek. He is possibly an Incel - a member of a misogynistic group of men who consider themselves involuntary celibates. He allegedly idolizes Elliot Rodger.
Do we owe any empathy to those who present as monsters? It’s a complicated ethical question. Are all monsters born that way? Or are some made?
Because one of the important points is that, somehow, in all the accusations and excuses, we don’t make mention of the fact Minassian felt his life was so terrible, he felt it was worth ending it. When you let go of the anger long enough to look at Minassian, there emerges a story about a man whose pain was so terrible and unrelenting, he felt compelled to inflict it on others.
Minassian clearly tried to commit suicide by cop. He pointed objects at the arresting officer, Constable Ken Lam. He made sudden moves. He claimed he had a gun. A 25-year-old man should be just getting started in life. This man, living in a first-world nation, hurt and killed and irrevocably changed and scarred the lives of others. Many others. And then he begged Lam to shoot him in the head.
And this is not a question to be shouted futilely at the heavens. We should be asking ourselves seriously: Why?
Lam is indeed a hero for seeing deeper into the situation under that kind of pressure.
What has failed in the system? What allows Minassians to go undiagnosed and untreated for years? There is a chasm that exists in our network, painfully dividing the "Happiness Haves" from the "Have Nots," and we are pretending that it is not our problem.
(Also, before someone thinks it, I am not saying that we women have brought the wrath of Incels upon ourselves as women by failing to throw ourselves at their feet. Sorry, nothing could make me believe that anybody has the right to anybody else's body.)
No, the disease that creates a monster like Minassian is a blight that starts at the roots, early on, and develops over the course of years. And currently, we have little in the way of means to diagnose or treat it.
When children die in school shootings, we talk about gun control and racial profiling. When a mother admits to postpartum depression, she lives in fear that people will call CAS. When celebrities like Robin Williams and Verne Troyer kill themselves – inadvertently or not – we put up hashtags in solidarity. These people are hurting, and a hashtag doesn’t fix that.
Still, people keep dying before their times in all ages and walks of life, because we’re not talking about the real problem that underwrites this: access to quality, prompt, and effective mental health care.
The one thing that is becoming terribly, terribly clear to me, especially when we see the cases of celebrity death in conjunction with stories of depression, is that the richest among us have as much trouble getting the support that they need to be happy and pain free as the poorest of us - when we need it. What does it say about the system when people who are the best equipped in privatized medical systems to obtain and pay for adequate care are still suffering and dying?
We need to talk about this – because destigmatizing and delivering adequate healthcare for people’s mental state is a form of “gun control.”
We also seldom talk about how things like tech and media have contributed to the breakdown of the village mentality and general social health. Well, we do, in broad terms, when we gripe about how CAS gets called on a free-range parent who lets their kid walk home alone and things of that nature. But we never take a hard look at what else we have lost, including the more automatic caring for, educating, and uplifting those who are isolated, deprived of opportunity, and misbegotten.
Healthy social interaction is a life skill that must be taught through an extended period of time growing up. It takes years and various social circumstances – and it’s not something that is done just by parents. We all have a small part to play in helping adolescents and young adults we encounter grow up. I'm glad that Canada has Roots of Empathy, and has brought back Katimavik, which has helped so many, but these programs are a drop in the proverbial bucket.
If we want to truly solve a problem like Minassian, we're going to have to take a measured, analytical look at how a child grows up to become a monster. We’ll have to decide whether we can and will fight the causes. And we will have to ask difficult and painful questions like, "Do we want these people to get better? Do they deserve to?”
It's going to be a tough, hard, ugly discussion.
But maybe someday we'll decide enough is enough.