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Hashtags and Terror Narratives in Toronto

Any place can seem ‘no go’ to those who’ve never gone.

· 11 min read
Hashtags and Terror Narratives in Toronto
Pic by Kasuga

On April 15, 2013, hours after the Tsarnaev brothers set off explosives at the Boston Marathon, the #bostonstrong hashtag went viral on Twitter. A week later, at the first home Red Sox game following the tragedy, the Fenway Park public announcer declared, “We are one. We are strong. We are Boston. We are Boston strong.” Since then, the same meme has been adopted by numerous other cities in the wake of local tragedies—including my own, Toronto, which proclaimed itself #TorontoStrong following a deadly van attack that took 10 lives in April.

The idea that communities become stronger in the wake of mass murder is attractive. And sometimes, it’s even true—because outside threats stimulate a spirit of collective defiance and solidarity. But many acts of mass murder are perpetrated by mentally ill killers who have no political motive. In these cases, tragedies can actually widen fissures within society, because different factions co-opt the crime to advance their own agendas. Collective strength can exist only when citizens have a sense of common purpose.

On Sunday, Toronto suffered another mass shooting, when a 29-year-old man named Faisal Hussain attacked a strip along Danforth Avenue in the city’s well-known Greektown neighbourhood, killing two and wounding 13. During the rampage, he moved from one side of the four-lane street to the other, seemingly targeting victims at random. Hussain isn’t known to have left any suicide note or manifesto. Nor is he known to have made any terroristic war cry or ululation before dying by his own hand.

My career as a journalist began shortly before 9/11, and much of my writing over the last 17 years has been connected to terrorism in some way. During that time, I’ve seen an evolution in the way people respond to high-profile attacks. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, people usually had to wait a day or two before shock and grief gave way to arguments about terrorism’s ‘root causes.’ But thanks to social media, that cycle is now compressed. After a school shooting in the United States, tweets savaging the NRA sometimes appear in my feed before I can even digest news about the shooting itself.

Ideologues on all sides spend their lives bursting with theories about the source of evil in the world—for that always has been the one great fascination of humankind. And whenever some apparent manifestation of that evil emerges, Twitter gives them a chance to scream “I told you so” before the blood is even dry. In many cases, as with Hussain, the roots of a killer’s rage are obscure, perhaps even unknowable. But we are all drawn to the myth that evil can be tracked down to some identifiable point source within the human soul.

I have seen this pattern of tragedy-and-response play out a hundred times, and I find it increasingly exhausting and pointless—but never more so than this week. Sunday’s shooting on the Danforth was the first tragedy of this kind that played out in my own neighbourhood. Hussain’s last breaths were taken at the end of my street, three blocks from my house. And my family regularly eats at the restaurants where Hussain found his victims.

We were all at home on Sunday night, but we heard nothing—not even the gunshots that some residents thought were firecrackers. It was my daughter who first heard news of the shooting, after her friends started sharing their accounts on Snapchat. As a journalist, I’d always reflexively focused more on the people who commit crimes than their victims—because that is where readers’ interest usually lies. But in this case, my response more closely resembled that of a real empathic human being. When I heard that one of the critically injured victims was just 10 years old, my only thought was that I wanted the kid to survive. Tragically, she didn’t.

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The next day, the shooting was all over my social media feed—along with shrill speculation about the killer’s motives. I ignored it—or tried to. These were culture warriors girding for battle, weaponizing their hash tags. I had done the same thing many times as an opinion journalist, but always when the dying took place far away from my own backyard.

Hussain was a Muslim, born to parents who’d immigrated from Pakistan, and lived in a working class, heavily Muslim neighbourhood called Thorncliffe Park. Reuters reported this week that ISIS claimed responsibility for Hussain’s attack. According to Toronto columnist Joe Warmington, he was “known to hang out behind his building at 43 Thorncliffe Park Blvd. with a group of 20 friends.” For those intent on branding Hussain an Islamist terrorist, that apparently was more than enough to go on. Since the attack, it has become common currency among some Canadians that Hussain’s neighbourhood is a ‘radical Muslim no-go zone.’

The threat of Islamist militancy is, of course, very real. But I was still alarmed to see how eager many Torontonians were to hammer Hussain into a pre-formed war-on-terror template. An incoming email from the Jewish Defence League—whose logo shows a raised fist superimposed over a six-pointed star—urged me to attend an “urgent meeting to discuss ISIS Terror Attack in Toronto.” According to the group, “there is an attempt by groups and the media to whitewash and cover up Islamic Terrorism. Let us meet and discuss a plan of action.”

Yet Hussain was no Tamerlan Tsanaev. Putting aside ISIS’ completely unproven claim to the Danforth attack, Hussain had no known linkage to any terrorist group. His parents, who issued a statement through a third party, expressing “deepest condolences to the families who are now suffering on account of our son’s horrific actions,” report that their son suffered from depression and psychosis that could not be treated with medication. Neighbours describe Hussain as an odd and socially dysfunctional man who had no interest in religion. Indeed, it’s difficult not to feel pity for the family: Of Hussain’s three siblings, one died in a 2013 traffic accident. Another, Hussain’s older brother, has been in a coma since 2017. He had dreamed of becoming a police officer.

It’s entirely possible that Hussain was indeed radicalized by Islamist materials he found on the internet. Mass killers who suffer from paranoia and psychosis often will attach themselves to creeds that purport to offer moral justification for violence. (Or, sometimes, they will make up their own gibberish creeds, as Seung-Hui Cho did before killing 32 victims at Virginia Tech 2007.) ISIS itself, having been destroyed militarily in Iraq and Syria, now exists entirely as digital flypaper for psychopaths. But just because isolated killers find inspiration from ISIS doesn’t mean we are a society under siege.

As for the ‘radical Muslim no-go zone’ that Hussain supposedly inhabited, I go there all the time, because it sits only a few kilometers from where I live. Many Canadian conservatives interpret their fears of Islam through the (genuinely shocking) stories that emerge from poor Muslim ghettoes in Europe. But Thorncliffe Park bears no resemblance to the ghettoes of Europe, except in the most superficial respects. Thanks to its more enlightened immigration policy, which emphasizes job skills and education, Canada has no counterpart to the cités around Paris.

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When I was studying to become a Toronto taxi driver in 2015, my classmates were composed largely of South Asian immigrants, and I would sometimes give one of them a lift home to his apartment in the heart of Thorncliffe Park. In the courtyard of his building, I would encounter those groups of men Warmington described, switching back and forth from English to Urdu as they tried to figure out whether it made better sense to drive for Beck Taxi or Uber. Across the street was a mosque that holds outreach events on the front lawn, offering free fruit juice and snacks to passersby—including me and my daughter, who takes weekly gymnastics courses down the street. The idea that this is a Canadian version of Peshawar would be credible only to someone who has never set foot in the area. Any place can seem ‘no go’ to those who’ve never gone.

But this macabre game of tragedy co-option goes both ways. After Toronto’s April van attack, Canada’s progressive journalists became fixated on the idea that the alleged perpetrator—a lifelong oddball and loner named Alek Minassian—was acting out a programmed misogynistic agenda inspired by the so-called incel movement. This exercise in mind-reading was thinly evidenced, originating in a single, 21-word message that Minassian had posted to Facebook. But the theory took hold, because it dovetailed with #MeToo coverage, and with the surging claim that our society is suffused with rape culture and murderous toxic masculinity.

In the case of Hussain, there is no known evidence at all of Incel influence. Literally, none. But that didn’t stop Canada’s largest newspaper from suggesting that Hussain might have been following the call to gendercide. In a Toronto Star article entitled “What Drove the Toronto Shooter to Unleash Violence on the Danforth?” investigative reporter Kenyon Wallace acknowledged “the fact that the alleged killer is dead means we cannot ask him about his motivations.” But with barely a pause, he then added that Hussain “shared a characteristic in common with many mass murderers, one that has received particular attention in the wake of a string of explicitly misogynistic attacks: he was male.”

The rest of Wallace’s article consists largely of academics speculating on why men such as Hussain might lash out in horrible ways. Rachel Kalish of the State University of New York, for instance, tells readers that “Much of it is this idea that [men] are owed something, or that someone has taken something from them and they must reassert themselves by taking something back…So for example, if a man is passed over for a job, say, and the job is given to a woman, he may feel like that woman ‘stole his job,’ but it was never actually even his to begin with.”

None of this has anything to do with Hussain, the purported subject of the article, who apparently had little interest in women or professional life. It would appear that Star journalists spent the hours after the tragedy combing the internet for any social-media scrap that would allow them to piston-drive Hussain into their preferred incel narrative. Having found none, they still went ahead and published Wallace’s article, leaving blank the spot near the top of the piece where journalists traditionally include material one might call ‘relevant facts.’

*     *     *

Crowds congregate in Greektown following the shooting (Photo: Jon Kay)

On Monday evening, a day after the shooting, the yellow police tape came down on Danforth Avenue. Some shops and restaurants reopened for business—though the crowds represented a small fraction of what they usually are on a perfect summer night (as Monday was in Toronto). The mood was sombre but not melancholy. Later in the week, a few Danforth Strong signs went up. But I don’t think any of us felt ‘strong’ per se. We were engaged in emotional theatre, controlling our behaviour on both ends of the spectrum, seeking to betray neither a sense of off-putting anxiety nor inappropriate ebullience.

I made a point of bringing my children, the youngest of whom is six. This sort of senseless killing is going to be part of their lives, and they need to know how to bounce back from it. At one point, as we approached the restaurant where the 10-year-old girl was killed, one of my daughters said she wanted to turn back. But then we saw Toronto mayor John Tory at the corner of Ferrier Avenue, shaking hands solemnly with passersby without any kind of close police protection. It was a sign to everyone that Sunday had been Sunday, but this was Monday, another day. We took a picture with him, and one of my daughters noticed that Baskin Robbins was open.

I don’t know how much any of us actually enjoyed the outing. But that was beside the point. The purpose was to reassert the rhythms of ordinary life in the wake of Sunday night’s traumatic rupture. And we succeeded, albeit in a morbidly self-conscious manner.

On Wednesday, we went out to Danforth again, this time to attend a vigil for Hussain’s victims, which started near my home and ended at Alexander Square, the civic hub of Greektown. It was a wonderfully understated affair; very Canadian, in the best sense. My family walked east along Danforth with a small group of firemen and EMS workers—some of whom had helped save shooting victims on Sunday night—who graciously received applause from diners on patios. Two women from a group called “Hearts for Humanity” gave everyone homemade buttons, all with different handwritten phrases. There was a Christian choir singing Amazing Grace and several well-represented Muslim groups—including a large contingent from the Ahmadiyya community. My daughters saw their classmates. I saw my neighbours, a former colleague from my newspaper days, and a rabbi who’d presided over my eldest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah just down the street.

From beginning to end, it was a succession of people coming together in a spirit of respect and healing. In moments like this, geography truly does matter, both in fear and in comfort. The woman who gave me a homemade heart pin carried a small sign that urged us all to “wear the pin, spread the love…Together we can change the world. Let’s start with our own community.” I am not a sentimental person. But at that moment, it seemed like very smart and useful advice. It still does.

In the days after 9/11, pundits worried that we had entered an age of apocalyptic terror, and that episodes of mass murder would become so common such as to make normal daily life impossible. That never happened. But this fact hasn’t stopped us from launching into ideologically fueled panic and acrimony in response to those few truly terrible acts that do afflict us. My advice for anyone whose community is attacked like this is to put down your phone so you can go out and be with neighbours in the flesh. True community strength doesn’t come from hashtags. It comes from people.

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