Montreal massacre: Let's stop this talk of cowards plus comments Apr 7 Apr 11, 2009


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Montreal massacre: Let's stop this talk of cowards – plus comments Apr 7 – Apr 11, 2009

By Judith Timson

Globe and Mail

Apr 7, 2009
On a beautiful, early spring day last week I opted for the dark side and went to see Polytechnique, the recently released English version of the movie about the Montreal massacre of 1989. (The movie has been out in Quebec since February.)

I left the theatre disoriented, blinking in the waning afternoon sunlight and marvelling how a dramatic recreation of an event nearly 20 years ago could not only be so freshly devastating, but could also reawaken such disturbing questions.

This event has, of course, come to mean something more than the horrific killing of 14 female engineering students at Montreal's L'École Polytechnique by disturbed gunman Marc Lépine, who said before killing them and eventually himself that he hated "all feminists." A ritual observance of the event every year on its anniversary, Dec. 6, enshrines it as our most potent symbol of misogyny and male violence against women.

For me, the most horrifying aspect of director Denis Villeneuve's short movie -- only 76 minutes long and shot in black and white -- is the utter passivity of the young men and women. When the gunman burst into a classroom, waving his shotgun and ordering them to split up, men on one side, women on the other, they followed his instructions to a tragic T. The camera portrays incomprehension and dread on their faces, but the men dutifully troop out of the classroom, leaving the female students to their fate.

Maclean's columnist Mark Steyn has been busy firing up the blogosphere, insinuating that these young men were cowards -- and typically Canadian cowards at that. He seems infuriated that, years later, we still don't want to acknowledge that "the men's fatal passivity" lies at the tragic heart of this event. (Like many others, he thinks that passengers on the bus when the psychotic Vince Li beheaded a young man last July should likewise have rushed forward and done something, but that sadly it's not part of our Canadian psyche.)

But Mr. Steyn, who argues we have created a false feminist mythology -- "utter twaddle" -- around the Montreal massacre, seems to have bought into some pretty heavy mythology himself: that men not only should save the day, but can save the day.

Is it really so odd that no one was willing to disobey a crazed guy who fired a shot at the ceiling before he ordered them around? Being conciliatory or submissive in the face of violence is not just a Canadian trait. Sometimes police even advise us to submit: So we do what we are told, praying that we and others will survive a gunman's wrath. Even if they had refused to split up, the chances are that Mr. Lépine - who is not named or explained in the movie - would have just shot them all together. Maybe there is a slight chance that, because his mission was to shoot only the women, he might have been destabilized long enough for the class to overpower him, but we'll never know.

We can take heart, I suppose, from the possibility that stories like this might make another classroom more effectively resistant when a wild-eyed, armed murderer sets off on a rampage. But I doubt it. There will be another shooting, we know that for sure. And all will be chaos and scattershot survival.

In the meantime, wrenchingly recalled in this movie, the story of Polytechnique eats away at our gender preconceptions and our frustrated hunger for heroes.

My 21-year-old daughter thinks that if the situation had been reversed, and the gunman had ordered all the women out of the room and shot the men, no one would ever have questioned their decision to go.

There is still no onus on females to stay and fight. We place that burden solely on our boys and men. We expect them to be sensitive and yet demand that they be brave enough to value their lives less than that of any woman around them. Twenty-year-old guys, it seems, have no right to be terrified into submission. And certainly no right to run for their lives.

Instead, we enshrine the stories of heroes who go down in blazes fighting bad guys - and, of course, we always hope that one of those manly heroes will be handy when we need him. So much attention has rightly been paid to the women, both victims and survivors, of L'École Polytechnique, but I would also love to hear from the men. They would be almost 40 now. Was there an element of shame as they got on with their lives? One male student who was a witness to the killings later killed himself. A similar character is portrayed in the movie as being so anguished that he whispers "I'm sorry" to a girl on a stretcher being wheeled out. She whispers in return, "It's not your fault."

Each year, I wonder whether it's time to relinquish this tragic story as a feminist marker and return it to the private anguish of those most personally affected. Ironically, this movie, a haunting summons to think humanely about something a little more complicated than misogyny, may help us let it go.


Latest comment posted at 8:41 AM EDT 11/04/09 (April 11, 2009)

Newest comments first: April 7:
Michael Erskine from Little Current, Canada writes:

Nature and nurture...our expectations of men's bravery and sacrifice stem from the same set of instincts that result in domestic violence. It is a hallmark of humanity that we refuse to accept nature's dictates-whether it is in altering our external environment or our internal reactions. We insist on having the best of all worlds and we strive to nurture our worst instincts into submission. I suspect that there is a much larger chance that the outcome would be different in the wake of Polytechnique and 9-11, but it is natural to follow the instruction 'do what I say and nobody gets hurt' whether explicite or implicit. When it is clear that hope is not true-different instincts take hold. We are a work in progress-humanity-and there is a very long way yet to go.

Posted 07/04/09 at 8:45 AM EDT

dwight steadman from Fort Macleod from Canada writes:

I'm glad Mark Steyn is there to protect us. Maybe we could give a gun and send him to Kandahar for a a couple of years to defend the cowardly Canadians.
Posted 07/04/09 at 8:54 AM EDT

Earl Anthony from Sudbury, Canada writes:

Marc Lepine was a muslim fanatic. I agree with Mark Steyn. How can we rely on police who may take up to an hour to show up. We must be able to stand up for ourselves and our neighbours.

Posted 07/04/09 at 9:14 AM EDT

Ms. DeMommies from Canada writes:

I wonder if Mark Steyn would be so critical if it were his young son in that situation?

Posted 07/04/09 at 9:30 AM EDT

A person from Toronto, Canada writes:

Gender aside, I think that these people were in a situation that was very bad, but they were still hoping for the best. They didn't want to anger the gunman, so they obeyed what he said in the hopes that their supplication would appease him. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way they had hoped.

It's the same situation as 911 when there were terrorists on a plane with box-cutters, and passengers did what they said in the hopes that everything would be okay.

Posted 07/04/09 at 9:54 AM EDT

Anony Mouse from Canada writes:

I always think it is asinine when people pontificate about what THEY would of done if they had been in the situation as evidence of what others should of done....when they themselves have never been in the situation. It's easy to be objective when you aren't in the circumstances, with all the little factors occuring at once.

We have no idea what each individual in that situation was thinking. In most cases, one should not take measures to escalate a situation, and while there had been school shootings prior to this ever occurring, that does not mean they knew what was about to happen nor does it mean it would of changed the events, nor does it mean they did not think they were doing what they could. I am sure men and women both felt powerless in this situation, and to blame these young men for being scared and not reacting to overwhelm the shooter is naive. These were not trained SWAT members or soldiers - and even they can be scared in different situations!

I think it is incredible that there is a burden placed on these young men for "not doing anything" merely as they are men and therefore were supposed to fulfill some role as a "protector" of the women. Isn't it time to drop the roles that cause these judgments in the first place?

Posted 07/04/09 at 9:56 AM EDT

Anony Mouse from Canada writes:

It should also be noted that he also DID shoot and harm four men. Yes, far less then women, but he obviously was not going to save his bullets against the men if they were in his way or provoked him.

A number of people after these events have committed suicide (I cannot recall the number, but there have been reports on the follow up talking about it) - and I am sure that not only the events they witnessed, but the attack on them for "not doing anything" harmed them in very deep ways.

The men were victims this day too and that cannot be forgotten.

Posted 07/04/09 at 10:06 AM EDT

Bad Lady from Canada writes:

Judith, you've identified one of the great double standards in our society; one that runs deep and seeps into many areas of life. I think this is a very important issue. Say what you will about evolutionary biology or homones or what have you, we can have tendancies towards difference without placing unfair expectations on an entire sex.
Posted 07/04/09 at 10:13 AM EDT

dirk dirk from Canada writes:

from the article...."Mr. Lépine - who is not named or explained in the movie"
That the killer or his motives are not explored removes all context from this tragic event. And allows people to frame and define the event as it suits them.

The fact that the killer experienced abuse at the hands of his father Rachid Gharbi and witnessed the abuse of his mother at his father's hands who had nothing but contempt for women and saw them as less than men cannot be downplayed.

Canada values equality and the feminist movement has fought hard to this end. There will always be those who operate outside our value system.

Posted 07/04/09 at 10:15 AM EDT

Robert Schwab from Canada writes:

As a retired university lecturer, my thoughts always turn to the instructor in that classroom with the question: What would I have done in that situation?

My former students may not credit this, but I always saw them as my children whom I was responsible for. If I had been there, I would like to think that I would have encouraged the male students to obey the gunman and to go and get help as quickly as possible. I, on the other hand, pray that I would have had the courage to place myself between my female students and the deranged individual threatening them with a gun. Could I have argued him down? Could I have given my students time to escape? Who knows? I am not a brave man, nor a strong man, but how would I live with myself if I did not try to live up to my responsibilities?

Posted 07/04/09 at 10:32 AM EDT

Dennis Rice from St. John's, Canada writes:

Valkyrie 23 from Guelph, Canada writes: "I don't know, but I'd probably jump the a$$hole, especially if my loved ones were in the room - I'd rather take the chance that I could stop him, then be passive and hope."

Yeah, me too. I'm jump the a$$hole, take his gun, and probably even give him a wedgie.

Give me a break. Speculating that you'd be a hero under the circumstances is ridiculous (although, at least you had the sense to do it anonymously). There's a difference between what we would like to do, and what we would do with a gun in our faces. For most people (though apparently not you) there's a difference.

Posted 07/04/09 at 10:35 AM EDT

Steve J J from Canada writes:

Very well written article Ms Timson, thank you.

Posted 07/04/09 at 10:44 AM EDT

Megan Ratcliffe from Toronto, Canada writes:

Although I was only 9 years old at the time, I remember hearing about it from the news. This was absolutely tragic, but to sit here and pretend, 20 years later that we know what we would have done is utterly ridiculous. I would just bet that every man who left, left with grave misgivings, but with the idea that by doing so they might save their classmates. Nobody really knows what he or she would have done, and sadly this type of incident seems to be escalating. For example, Columbine, or Virginia Tech. And for the comment about the passengers on the greyhound bus, not rushing mr Li, the guy was clearly off, and waving a knife. If the passengers had rushed him there may have been more deaths. I feel for the victims and their families of Mr Lepine, but in no way do I think that the men who left were somehow cowardly.

Posted 07/04/09 at 10:45 AM EDT

bill williams from Guelph from Canada writes: -

Whatever the would'a-should'a-could'a analysis, one thing is perfectly clear: Mark Steyn can not be relied upon to say anything intelligent.
He is relied upon to be provocative and controversial, and to sell copies of a failing magazine. He is NOT relied upon to offer cogent analysis of anything.
Posted 07/04/09 at 11:08 AM EDT

Dulce et Decorum Est Pro HARPER Mori? from Support the Troops -- Bring them Home!, writes:

One permanent truth: Mark Steyn is a blowhard imbecile.
Posted 07/04/09 at 11:22 AM EDT

Man of La Mancha from Canada writes:

From the article - Each year, I wonder whether it's time to relinquish this tragic story as a feminist marker and return it to the private anguish of those most personally affected. Ironically, this movie, a haunting summons to think humanely about something a little more complicated than misogyny, may help us let it go.....

Yes, it is time to let it go. It's absurd for feminists to use this tragedy to try to make a point about misogyny. Marc Lepine was insane and his actions need to be seen in this context. If you're trying to make a point about misogyny, at least use a real example.

Posted 07/04/09 at 11:46 AM EDT

Amy from Toronto from Canada writes:

I think this issue is one of cowardice, period. It doesn't matter that it was the men who left the women; if all the women had left, I'd say they were cowards too. And that's not to say that I wouldn't likely do the same, if I were in their position; self-protection is innate. But I think that perhaps it's time that we all tried to go against nature and stick our necks out for each other. Day in and day out, I see situations where people really should stand up and intervene on each other's behalf, but no one ever does. It's sad.

Posted 07/04/09 at 11:59 AM EDT

J Lee from Canada writes:

Of course we are shocked and appalled by the action of one lone "crazy", disturbed, gunman, particularly when his actions reflect poorly on what we perceive as our holly social purpose. But he was a lone "crazy", disturbed gunman. Clearly not a representative of the society we live in, unless you are willing to suspend any rational analysis and simply conclude that down deep we are all like Lepine. But along side this lone crazy, we live with accept promote and enjoy many other destructive actions that kill, maim, dismember, and disfigure many more than twenty people each day. And not just young women, but young men, children, women, pregnant women, women with babies, women with young kids, grandfathers, grandmothers etc. Ask Hillier (kill the scumbags), Martin and Harper how much they care about what we are really doing in Afghanistan. Ah but Afghanistan is too remote and besides we are really trying to make it better. Not to mention our trade and agricultural policies and the destruction of lives in Africa. Or our pharmaceutical policies etc etc. Maybe it is better that we preserve our wonderful illusions about ourselves and what our tragedy really is. We can't handle the truth.

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:00 PM EDT

Combative American from Minneapolis, United States writes:

A person from Toronto, Canada writes: "Gender aside, I think that these people were in a situation that was very bad, but they were still hoping for the best. They didn't want to anger the gunman, so they obeyed what he said in the hopes that their supplication would appease him. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way they had hoped.

It's the same situation as 911 when there were terrorists on a plane with box-cutters, and passengers did what they said in the hopes that everything would be okay. "

Unfortunately, this is normally how these situations come to their final conclusion. Knowing this, or even believing the mortal danger to be partially true (if not wholly so) - why then would anyone be so stupid as to think that through supplication and appeasement of these madmen, that this would be enough to spare their lives?

As is often quoted here: There is no force on the Earth that can protect you better than you...

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:20 PM EDT

We won't get fooled again from Canada writes:

The male students never signed up to be heros. They had paid for an education, not to face down a gunman. To hold them accountable for a split second decision on which they received no training and no preparation is wrong.

Everyone wishes things were different that day, but holding the ones who left the room guilty for a madman's actions borders is demented.

(Nice article, by the way)

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:36 PM EDT

Binder Dundat from Canada writes:

People who were there did what they did for their own reasons.

Those of us who were not there -- who did not face this puzzling surprise in the middle of an ordinary class session -- need to understand that hindsight changes everything.

Think YOU would have been a hero that night? What makes YOU so different from those who were there, aside from hindsight?

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:38 PM EDT

Combative American from Minneapolis, United States writes:

J Lee from Canada, as off-topic as your myopic rant is, it at least merits a view from the other side. What you've conveniently left out of your screed against Western civilization is that drugs that you claim do harm to innocent African victims, indeed do the opposite. Former President Bush's efforts to rid the continent of the AIDS virus and to extend the education and treatment options is, to this day, one of the greater legacies this man left us with. It is from these efforts that the lives of millions of Africans living today, would have been eradicated without. The fact that boatloads of drugs from the US, Canada, France, Great Britain and others, all used to treat malaria, typhoid fever, STD's, and a host of other heretofore rarely treated diseases, goes a long way to challenge the thoughts you have previously written. But it is your tirade on Afghanistan that troubles me even more. For if the nations of this world will not step up and hold those who do dastardly deeds against good people, then what will we fight for? And if political pontifications, like the one you just exercised, are not brought into line with the actual reasons for military or force-led incursions into these area's that operate outside of international law and dignity, then we have no one to blame for the dire fate that awaits us. There is a plan for Afghanistan. One that is almost uniformly backed by the rest of the free world and beyond. Including the UN, its various agencies and titular heads. And the fact that countries like the US, Canada and Britain are all in this fight together, should tell you a bit about what is trying to be done there, as well as the various reasons behind it. Unless, of course, you have some heretofore highly logical reason as to why we shouldn't be there?

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:38 PM EDT

Craig Jenkins from Toronto, Canada writes: @Dennis Rice - who has not only the courage to post with a real name, but the good sense to understand that no one really knows what they would do until they are put in that situation - thank you.

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:41 PM EDT

Batsin DeBelfrie from Montreal, Canada writes:

What's twaddle, to me, is the idea that anyone knowingly left anyone else to their fate!

Incomprehension and disbelief were what ruled people actions in the two tragedies mentioned, don't you think?

"What the hell is going on?" was probably uppermost in people's minds... a school shooting, a stabbing murder on an inter-city bus... what the hell???

In both case, these were first time events, not even the police knew how to handle things. In retrospect, mistakes were made... if they had to do it all over again? It would have been different stories... and if anything close happens again? Well, we've already seen better responses in the unfortunately echoing school shooting that have happened in Canada since 1989.

Playing armchair quaterback here doesn't help anyone, does it?
Posted 07/04/09 at 12:52 PM EDT

Laura Dover from Calgary, Canada writes:

I think that if they'd had some chance to organize, they probably would have tried something. As it was, if any one of them would have stepped forward, he would have been shot, and nothing would have been accomplished.

I remember the day of the shooting well, and how angry people were, and the beginning of the debate over whether it represented an endemic pattern of male violence against women (and the anger over that) or whether he was just a lone madman. A black day in our history.

Posted 07/04/09 at 12:53 PM EDT

J S from Canada writes:

I've had a loaded gun pointed at me during a robbery. It's fine and dandy to be matcho and say that if that ever happened to me I'd have fought back. It's a completely different thing to actually be in a situation where your life is on the line. I beleive it's basic human instinct to survive. In this type of situation, your own survival is paramount. I guess what I'm trying to say is - you don't know how you're going to react when faced with a life/death situation until it happens. Although you may think you're going to be really macho and fight back when an actual loaded gun is pointed at you and your life threatened, you may freeze when it happens. Yes, it is followed by a profound sense of guilt that lingers for years. I still feel as though being robbed was my fault for being weak. I'm still going through post-traumatic stress from the experience. I would ask the McLeans writer to get himself into a hostage situation with a crazy gunman and then tell us how macho he was in trying to disarm him - that is, if he survives and doesn't make the situation worse than it already is. If we truly want a 'macho' man society where every man is akin to a movie superhero, I suggest we start para-military training as soon as a child can walk. Start the violence desensitization training as soon as they're born. To say that these men were cowardly due to a feminized society is just foolish and ignorant.

And I agree with 'We won't get fooled again from Canada' - nice article.

Posted 07/04/09 at 1:03 PM EDT

Laura Dover from Calgary, Canada writes:

Oh, and JP C - he wasn't a Muslim. He was a Roman Catholic. (Or is that what you were afraid to say?)
Posted 07/04/09 at 1:05 PM EDT

Tom Burns from Duncan, BC, Canada writes:

Every day there are reports of new outrages which range from school shooting to bus beheadings. Personally, I find it unproductive to navel gaze over imponderables like "cowardice" & "feminization."

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