This week, in my hometown of Toronto, a loner rented a van and rammed into pedestrians, killing 10 people and wounding 14 others.
While I don’t live in Toronto now, I grew up there. I’m familiar with Yonge & Finch (where it happened). This one hit close to home, literally, as so many others have hit close to home for many of you.
When stuff like this happens, the debate inevitably turns to guns, or mental illness. And that’s not what I want to talk about here (PLEASE let’s not do the gun control debate in the comments, okay? Guns were not involved here and there were still multiple fatalities. That’s not what I’m trying to talk about.)
Instead, I want to talk about this thread that we often hear about how these mass murderers were loners who were rejected. This guy belonged to an “incel” group, which stood for involuntary celibacy. Girls wouldn’t give him the time of day. He was lonely and angry about it.
The Montreal Massacre, which occurred December 6, 1989, when a gunman burst into an engineering class, lined up the men and women separately, and gunned down all the women, was similarly lonely and mad that women had rejected him. Pretty much all the mass murderers have been “loners”.
What are we supposed to do about that? I do think, as a society, we have to ask what steers kids in this direction. We have to ask if there’s something we can do to identify people who may be dangerous and reach out to them earlier. But here’s where things get dicey. I read this comment on the New York Times site, and I thought it had interesting insight:
There is often…reporting about their status of a “loner” or “being awkward” in school and, I think, an implied link that … if the kids around him reached out more this could have been avoided. I can say that as a girl in my school years, I often did reach out to kids, often boys, who sat alone or who were awkward. Many times this resulted in regret on my part–they, being socially awkward, did not have much emotional intelligence or boundaries and I would have to extricate myself from the “friendship” or be endlessly bothered or harassed. I don’t think there is a person alive who did not feel lonely or left out sometime during their schooling years, but always reporting about how the person (man) was “lonely” or “socially isolated” in school indirectly places blame on the other students, often girls. The cliche of the “snobby cheerleader” who often gets what she deserves (humiliation) in almost any teen movie or show reinforces this. Often times, children stay away from or shun other kids they know are dangerous. This is different than bullying and is an adult problem to be handled by professionals. Kids should not be held responsible, directly or indirectly, for the actions of a classmate.
I tend to agree. Bullying a classmate is different from avoiding a classmate who seems like they may be dangerous or awkward.
I remember reaching out to loners in high school, too, and then regretting it as they stuck to me like glue and asked me out every day.
I want to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world. We know that Jesus loves all, and that His eyes are especially on the loners. But sometimes people are loners because they are simply nerds or socially awkward. Other times people are loners because they seem dangerous (and they start stalking anyone who gets close).
So what are we to do?
I asked Rebecca to chime in today with some thoughts about this since she was a pretty social kid in high school. Here’s what she thinks:
When tragedy like this occurs, it’s natural instinct to try to figure out why it happened so we can prevent it from happening again.
That’s why people are focusing on the “loner” part of this story–the problem was just that he didn’t have any friends?! That’s an easy fix! Just get kids to talk to each other more!
But I don’t agree with that necessarily. And there are 3 main reasons why:
Many of these “loners” are loners for a reason
It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Looking back on my own youth group and work experience in high school, there are two groups of marginalized people: the people who are just a little odd, and don’t quite fit in while they’re in high school; and the people who are downright scary or uncomfortable to be around.
The kids who were just a little odd, I had no problems being around. I made sure they felt welcomed, I actually became quite good friends with some of them! (I think the argument could be made that in Jr. High, I was one of the weird kids!)
But the scary ones were another story.
At my youth group, we had an over-night event once where a new guy showed up to participate in. He was scary. Really scary. I remember realizing that I was in a room alone with him at one point and becoming overwhelmed with the feeling that I needed to find someone else pronto. I grabbed onto two of the older guys who were my friends and told them, “You’re sticking with me for the rest of the group time” and they acted as my security whenever that guy was around.
Within a few years, my impressions about him had been confirmed many times over.
When we talk about having to reach out to the “loners” in high schools, youth groups, or whatever it is, I think there needs to be a difference between the “loners” who are just a little bit odd and the “loners” who are loners because they are really scary people no one wants to hang out with. And let’s recognize that there is a difference.
Kids need to be told that they are allowed to have discernment about who they hang out with.
Discernment is not the same as prejudice. Saying, “I’m not going to talk to him because he’s really nerdy and will make me look uncool” is totally different than saying, “I’m not going to talk to him because I don’t feel safe when I’m around him”.
Kids shouldn’t have to talk to everyone. In fact, with the amount of sexual assault, drugs, and binge-drinking that goes on in high school, kids should be encouraged to be wise in who they hang out with or talk to.
We need to be honest about evil and what it looks like.
We talk about these horrible, evil acts like this attack as if it’s the result of mental illness.
And that bothers me.
I struggle with anxiety. One of my best friends struggles with severe depression. I had a professor who has OCD. Many of the people in my church struggle with mental illnesses, too.
But none of us are evil people. None of us would ever even consider hurting someone else.
All this talk about how if people had just talked to him more maybe this wouldn’t have happened misses out on the root of it all, in my opinion. I think the root of all of this is that evil people don’t attract nice people to themselves, are actually unwise to spend time with, and will do evil things. I’m not sure it’s really anything other than that.
I think we need to start talking about evil again, and what it looks like. Maybe evil acts aren’t the result of mental illness, but maybe it’s just that where there is evil we will also find mental illness, which is why the conclusion is often drawn that mental illness must have made them do it. I don’t have a fully fleshed-out theory of this yet, so I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, but I think we need to accept the fact that sometimes, evil is evil. And when we agree on that, we can figure out how to recognize and deal with the evil in our midst.
I’m not saying that there’s nothing we can do, or that we shouldn’t be trying to help these kids. I just think it is unfair to put the responsibility on teenagers when this is a systemic issue, and one that children should not be responsible for.
Whatever your opinion is on this issue, please pray for Canada right now. Pray for the families who lost loved ones and those who were injured. Pray for the fear that so many people are facing right now.
But I also want to know your opinion–what do you think of my three points? Do you agree, or disagree? I haven’t fully decided what I believe on these issues yet, and I’d like your input.