The Neverending Story
Are we helpless in the face of the lone gunman?
There have been four fatal shootings at Montreal schools in the last seventeen years. In 1989, Marc Lépine killed himself and fourteen women at École Polytechnique. Concordia University professor Valery Fabrikant killed four of his colleagues in 1992. Iacob Marcu shot his French teacher to death at a local language school in 1997. And of course, Kimveer Gill’s actions at Dawson College this past September 13.
“You can say whatever you want, but the devil was present that day in the atrium,” says Dawson student Andrea Barone. “I guarantee you, he was there.” During the course of our ninety-minute conversation, he didn’t use Gill’s name once, preferring instead to use pronouns such as “he” or “the guy.” Barone still looks over his shoulder when he’s in the Dawson atrium. But then he did watch a gunman fire nine bullets into Anastasia De Sousa and had the gun trained on him for endless seconds before police located Gill and began shooting. “If the cops hadn’t been there,” he says over a late breakfast one month after the fact, “I can’t guarantee I’d be here right now.”
Barone’s devil has been busy lately. Shortly after the Dawson incident, a gunman entered a school in Colorado, sexually abusing and killing at least one student before taking his own life. Three days after that, a fifteen-year-old student in Cazenovia, Wisconsin killed his principal. Less than a week later, five Amish schoolgirls died when a thirty-two-year-old truck driver entered their one-room schoolhouse and started shooting methodically, eventually taking his own life.There appears to be little that connects the shootings other than their common settings and the intensive media attention each received. There have been suggestions, however, that mounting media attention fed into each subsequent shooting, and that the Dawson coverage started a macabre snowball effect. “If there is no reporting on it, it doesn’t happen,” school-shooting expert Loren Coleman told the Montreal Gazette. So, what happened in that initial round of coverage?
When word broke that gunshots were being fired inside Dawson College, newsrooms mobilized every resource. When the hard news began to evaporate, the speculation started. Gill’s posting on VampireFreaks.com provided enough evidence to paint a familiar portrait of a lonely and angry goth who liked video games and guns a little too much. By the following weekend, the Globe and Mail’s Jan Wong made the suggestion that the shooter’s alienation was due to the province’s language laws and lingering notions of Québécois ethnic purity. Wong was duly vilified by the press with spirited attacks coming from Montreal’s top columnists, not to mention Quebec premier Jean Charest. And then like rabid dogs, the press turned on itself, with writers attacking each other for having attacked Wong. The Gazette’s Hubert Bauch wrote that l’affaire Wong was, in fact, distracting us from the real issues—in this case racism in Quebec. CanWest columnist Janet Bagnall echoed Bauch’s claim, only for her, the real issue was domestic violence.
The mainstream media search for definite answers. The profession is dedicated to accountability, to holding people responsible. And so when something like Dawson occurs and a Real Issue is suddenly at stake, there must be a chain of events that explains the action.
There is nothing inherently threat-ening about a man, yet solitary individuals have consistently forced large groups to rethink their societies. Lone individuals—from John Wilkes Booth onwards—stain modern history so effectively because of the decisive nature of modern weapons.
“We now have a technology that allows for mass killing [and] has become, if you will, democratically distributed throughout the population,” says Neil Boyd, criminologist and author of The Last Dance: Murder in Canada.
But a gun is only the facilitator, and there is a subtle difference between the pervasiveness of weapons and the democratization of violence. The former is a political matter, a fact measurable by statistics. The latter is a more abstract concept, one that underpins our fear. The democratization of violence doesn’t allow for reasonable expectations because harm is no longer the purview of certain neighborhoods, situations or people. Dawson College is a CEGEP on the eastern edge of the affluent district of Westmount—not a war zone, a ghetto or an asylum. Suddenly society’s malcontents don’t simply drop out: they have both the will and the means to attack, and to do so without prejudice. At the end of the day, the innocent are as dead as the guilty.
Unexplainable violence makes for stressful living. Another murder. Another rape. It makes every trench coat-wearing teenager seem menacing. Video games and the Internet become harbingers of destruction. It makes empty threats feel like the Apocalypse postponed. Slowly, unfocused terror grafts itself onto the social fabric and eats at the stability of our consciousness.
It’s a damaging state of mind for a society so thoroughly weaned on having its expectations met: trains come on time, waiters return with our orders, cheques are in the mail. Death should be far enough removed so that we can go to the supermarket with a reasonable expectation of returning. Faith forms part of this complex series of transactions that make communal living possible: believe in the system and the system returns the favour by offering peace of mind.
Clearly, a school shooting rocks that faith, and in ways distinct from acts of political terrorism. “It doesn’t appear to instill the same sort of fear,” says Boyd. A school shooting is “a lot more atomistic, it’s not as organized and it’s a single individual.”
Systematic violence, in contrast, is intellectually easier to handle, because we can at least regulate our fear and take preventative action. (For example, in the case of biker gangs, this meant toughening the laws, creating special anti-gang police units and using the media to reveal the bikers’ true brutality.)
But when violence grows out of a unique psychological dysfunction, our fear becomes unmoored. How do we deal with our free-floating fears? What actions can we take? Where do we focus our efforts? One amateur computer programmer, Danny Ledonne, felt he had to do something. “Events like [school shootings] are real catalysts for people’s belief systems,” he says. Ledonne knows all too well the video games associated with school shootings and the school-age games so often associated with them. So, in April 2005, to mark the sixth anniversary of the Columbine high school shooting in which fifteen people died, Ledonne put his pet project online, Super Columbine Massacre RPG, a crude, 2-D role-playing game where the player takes on the personalities of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
After going unnoticed for several months, bloggers began to spread the word of its existence and Ledonne found himself at the centre of a media storm—not surprising, given the unconventional expression of his good intentions. Some families of Columbine victims were so outraged by Super Columbine Massacre RPG they were unable to respond when reporters called for comment; those who did used terms like “deplorable.” The controversy eventually ebbed, and twenty-four-year-old Ledonne resumed his relatively anonymous life in Alamosa, Colorado—but his phone began ringing again this September, when it became known that Gill listed Super Columbine Massacre as one of his favourite games. Once again a flashpoint, the game came to represent what many hold responsible for Gill’s attitudes—the dark corners of cyberspace where wanton destruction is celebrated.
But there is little blood, gore, and no celebration of violence in Super Columbine Massacre. “I wanted to create a new kind of discussion about why school shootings happen, because they keep happening,” says Ledonne over the phone, before heading off to his day job teaching underprivileged youth how to use new media. “The game was a jumping off point for that.” It requires, in fact, a fair amount of reading and problem solving. It is also highly satirical in its packaging, a fact most media fail to mention. At various points, players meet up with Bart Simpson, Ronald Reagan and, at one point, they even deliver a copy of Ecce Homo to Friedrich Nietzsche. These humorous and educational elements form a sharp contrast to the grisly details of the killings that Ledonne meticulously researched and forces players to confront. Reflecting on the morality of shooting unarmed innocents is left up to the player.
“Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, through their furious words and malevolent actions, can be understood as the canaries in the mine,” he writes on the website where the game can be downloaded for free. The game is an attempt to decode the shootings using popular culture, and is a deceptively potent tool for communicating with alienated, at-risk youth.
Unfortunately, a certain player named Kimveer Gill failed to grasp this purpose. The implicit call to reflection was lost on the twenty-five-year-old who lived with his parents in a sprawling suburb north of Montreal. “Anger and hatred simmers within me,” Gill wrote in his profile on VampireFreaks.com. In other postings, Gill’s anger is remarkable for its earnestness. In a list of his dislikes, he writes “The world and everything in it.” Elsewhere he calls himself Trench, but adds “you will come to know him as the Angel of Death.”
They are the thoughts of a sick person trying to attach some meaning to an appare ntly unremarkable middle-class existence. After finish-ing high school, Gill dropped out of Vanier College before even finishing a semester. He worked as a stockroom clerk for a while before being laid off. [See page 6 for a letter from someone who knew and worked with Gill.] He collected unemployment insurance and surfed the Internet in his parent’s basement. He took up an interest in small arms and eventually joined a gun club in Ville St. Pierre (the same club, incidentally, used by Valery Fabrikant). Gill, in short, had trouble finding a purpose or fitting himself into a narrative.
On September 13, 2006, he found his. At 10:30 am he had a slug of whisky. Two hours later, he sprayed Dawson College with up to sixty rounds of ammunition—nine of those shots fatally finding the body of De Souza while other rounds left close to twenty people hospitalized. A police officer shot Gill in the arm. Moments later, Gill turned his gun on himself.
“The capacity to do violence extends the self,” writes William T. Vollman in his seven-volume rumination on violence, Rising Up, Rising Down. That day, an unemployed twentysomething living in his parents’ suburban basement transformed himself into the Angel of Death.
In the days following the shooting, psychiatrists treated Dawson students for severe anxiety. One doctor described the symptoms of a full-scale panic attack as a feeling of “impending doom.” But medical definitions do little to fill in the black trench coat outline of our fear.
Forces both social and political will ensure that the memory of Anastasia De Sousa will be preserved (a scholarship is being set up in her honour). But as the sad anniversaries roll forward, no one will be celebrating an absence of school shootings. Parents dropping off their loved ones at schools and colleges around town will clutch them a little tighter. Everything, it seems, conspires to remind us of our our own helplessness.