A 167 per cent increase in shootings within Toronto’s downtown core (and elsewhere) has resulted in a moral panic that, in its unnerved call for more “law and order,” marginalizes the complex life stories of those caught up in the city’s urban violence. This is a gradual process of dehumanization that will impede the city’s efforts to mitigate the overall problem.
Unlike culprits of mass violence such as Faisal Hussain, who killed a girls in a possible act of terrorism last month and whose life story has been analyzed on a microscopic level, no one cares to know much about, say, 21-year-old Sheldon Eriya, who allegedly shot and wounded two girls on a playground this June while missing his actual target. The public isn’t all that interested in his personal story and, unlike in the case of Hussain, no one’s doing a deep dive into his family history or background. In short, Eriya is just another number among a bunch of stat and trends used to back up some TV pundit’s hot take on “the gun violence issue.”
Mayor John Tory, for one, prefers using terms like “sewer rats” or “thugs” to describe those who carry out this violence. Sewer rats aren’t human. They don’t have complicated life stories. Other human beings don’t have to listen to them. And that’s apparently the way people like it: as long as the blood doesn’t touch their side of the street, it’s better not to know. In our post-9/11 climate, unless an act of violence is “ideologically motivated” (i.e. terrorism), it’s just not all that fun to talk about. The stories of those involved can’t be readily furnished as ammunition for political debate, so no one really bothers with them.
Mental illness and motive for gun violence
Debates around mental illness versus ISIS-style influence heated up almost immediately after Faisal Hussain’s mass shooting on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue. Similarly, a discussion around the troubled life of Alek Minassian took place right after he allegedly ran a van over dozens of people on Yonge Street in April. Everyone wanted to talk about his cryptic references to the strange “incel” subculture and its violent sentiments towards women.
This is a reflection of how politicized our discussions about motives have become. A proven motive can be used as evidence against a political opponent’s interpretation of the same incident. It can be used to discredit an opposing proposal of how to address the problem. In other words, motives are useful insofar as they can be weaponized to debate the other side.
But not so for Toronto’s discussion around gun violence. Here, no one really bothers with the individual stories (or the complex motives animating them) outside of a few journalists who have jobs to do. The wider public isn’t interested so much in individuals as it’s interested in the overall phenomenon of gun or gang violence. Unlike Hussain or Minassian, who are presented as people with names, faces, families, and complicated pasts, the victims and perpetrators of Toronto’s gun violence remain pretty faceless.
Police and surveillance
Politicians from Tory to Premier Doug Ford are happy to use the shootings and deaths throughout certain parts of Toronto to argue for more policing and surveillance. Toronto city council just approved $8 million of spending this year to address the latest surge, with the vast majority of that money devoted to law enforcement and surveillance. Some money has also been earmarked for social programs and such, but that’s about the extent of the public discussion.
It also appears that the only reason that the wider public is even bothering with the “gun violence issue” has less to do with some freakish rise than it does with how the problem has spread into certain neighbourhoods in Toronto. As researcher Claire Wilmot notes, there’s only been about a 10 per cent increase in the number of shootings since 2016, “hardly a surge.” But this year, shootings in Spadina, Richmond, Kensington, and University neighbourhoods have skyrocketed. These aren’t neighbourhoods traditionally associated with high rates of gun violence as opposed to, say, Rexdale, Lawrence Heights, or Jane/Finch, areas which have actually seen in the past two years a combined 40 per cent drop in shootings.
It’s willful desensitization: the sheer amount of tragedy in the world forces our inundated culture to select exactly what we want to be the target of our outrage. #TOpoli #Toronto #gunviolence
In other words, the attention to detail paid to most problems (and the living, breathing people caught up in them) depends as much on the overall political climate as it does on the nature of the crisis.
If it’s a possible act of terrorism—a defining issue of our time—then the nightly news runs continuous stories on all sorts of things related to the incident. If it’s “just another shooting” by some "sewer rat" on the other side of town, no major institution pays any real attention until that violence seeps into neighbourhoods closely associated with the city’s 'mainstream': the downtown core, the entertainment district, tourism-heavy areas, etc. And even then, don’t expect any “This is What We Know About [insert name]” articles.
It’s willful desensitization: the sheer amount of tragedy in the world forces our inundated culture to select exactly what we want to be the target of our outrage.
But it’s one thing to know nothing about those who die anonymously overseas in complicated military conflicts, and quite another when the individuals in question live a 20 minute drive away. No inquiry into the city's violence is totally legitimate without a thorough accounting of the complex, human stories associated with the names, faces, and lives of those who're caught up in it.