Looking past the symbols to see the real perpetrators of evil

To be truly inclusive and open, we must recognize that acts of terror aren't about race or religion, they're about evil individuals

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There’s only one lesson to be learned from the terrible events of last weekend in Las Vegas and Edmonton. It’s to examine our first reactions to both incidents and recognize a valuable self-teaching moment that should adjust our perceptions in the future.

When the suspect who stabbed a police officer and attempted to run down pedestrians in Edmonton was identified as a Somali national who came to Canada in search of refugee status, some had an ‘aha’ moment and used that fact to denounce Canada’s perceived welcoming policy towards immigrants as dangerous folly. “See?” they might say, “this is what happens when we open our borders. Those people are here to hurt us.”

But it’s in our very willingness to assign individuals to a group of ‘they’ and ‘them’ that lies at the heart of the challenge faced in a more multicultural and less homogeneous community than the one many of us grew up in.

We don’t see the individual, we see the different coloured skin; we hear the odd-sounding name and instantly we’re prepared to view a person as ‘the other’ – as one part of a larger and more insidious alien whole. Once we do that, it’s only a short step to dividing our society into arbitrary camps made up of us and them.

Battle lines become drawn without any formal declaration – the catalyst lies simply in our leap of logic that strips away the individual as an autonomous actor, and instead ascribes to him or her the quality of being a representative of a larger and more dangerous entity that we must stand on guard against.

Compare that to our reaction once it was learned that the Las Vegas shooter was a white man – a 64-year-old retired accountant, no less – who was neither an outsider nor a minority. He was someone who outwardly would have ticked all our boxes of tolerance had we passed him in the street, in the grocery store or, indeed, in the lobby of the Mandalay Bay.

None of us reacted to his identification by feeling that extra vigilance was now warranted against … who exactly? White people? Retired accountants? To even hold in our minds the concept that we must now be cautious around an entire group based on who might resemble Stephen Paddock is so absurd that it strains any sense of logic.

There was much the same dynamic at play when Timothy McVeigh was identified as the Oklahoma City bomber. McVeigh may have been a radical and an extremist in every sense, but he was also decidedly ‘one of us.’ And when we say ‘one of us,’ what do we really mean? What’s at the heart of that inclusion?

We mean he was white, of course. Before Oklahoma City, he could have even been described as something of an all-American boy from the blue-collar suburbs of Buffalo. He was Catholic and a military veteran. He was in essence someone nobody would have feared had he walked onto an elevator or tried to board an airplane.

We need to keep that in mind as we wait for the next inevitable and horrible act. When the news media identifies the next perpetrator, let’s take a moment to examine our reactions and ensure we’re seeing an individual actor and not a symbol or representative who somehow stands in for an entire race, religion or ethnic group.

We find it very easy to do that when the actor is white. We dismiss him as someone who is an aberration, someone who must surely be mentally unbalanced and we take comfort in the fact that he doesn’t symbolize anything of us, of our values or of our world view.

If we could do that when it comes to also evaluating those who are outwardly different from us, we might take steps towards becoming the truly inclusive society we all desire.

Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day.

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