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Random ruminations on a massacre

polytechnique-mourners.jpg

Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are; Courage to make them the way they ought to be.

--St. Augustine

I have to say something painfully honest and rather heretical, right off the bat: I hate once-a-year memorial ceremonies. I hate them because they commemorate senseless slaughters that prey on people's minds at all times, and not just on the anniversary of the day they happened. I hate them, also, because they too often "try to make sense" of the senseless, and end up making nothing but nonsense instead. It seems to me that such ceremonies are less about remembering than they are about walling that tragedy off, and forgetting the very things we should not.

For me, the calendar date is not the real reminder of what happened in Montréal on December 6, 1989. The reminder is the smell of snow in the air; it is the strains of "The First Noël"; it is the color purple; it is the names of fourteen women; it is the sound of gunshots fired. It is the feel of university textbooks in my hand; it is the stiffness in my knees after hours crouched on the floor at the Queen's Women's Centre, rummaging through its tiny, inadequate library in search of answers I could not find; it is the warm waxy acrid smell of a burning candle; it is the brittle texture of an old newspaper clipping; it is the stifled rage that turns my hands cold and pale even in the warmest room.

So, with that in mind, here I am, writing (ironically, today, because I must) about the events of that day, which for me really was only yesterday, and which memory has made as immediate as if it had happened just now. Why do I need to show up at a rote ritual for something that only happened hours, minutes, seconds ago? To be dutiful? To be palliated? To be comforted? To go away feeling smug and detached and all there-that-oughta-fix-it?

Listen:

There is no once-a-year duty in the world that can palliate out of existence the painful realization that a woman who has crossed some arbitrary line, into a place formerly reserved for men, that she can be gunned down at random, just for being female and out of some imaginary line. Got that? There is nothing that can comfort me about the knowledge that even in Canada, in this supposedly enlightened day and age, there are still men who think that a woman who dares to step outside the house is "asking for it".

What is "it"? Harassment? Dirty name-calling? A wad of phlegmy spit aimed her way? A wad of some other male bodily fluid entirely?

Or is "it" a hail of bullets, and a running stream of her own arterial blood across the floor of a cafeteria or classroom in a university no longer reserved exclusively for men?

You see, this is what no decorous yearly ceremony can palliate away from my mind.

I have before me the image of a young woman slumped in a chair, dead, while in the background, a police officer takes down the tinsel holiday decorations in the Polytechnique cafeteria. I can hardly fault him for doing so; the occasion was not festive, and any ceremonial trappings could only seem a mockery. All the joy and festivity was over for those fourteen women, for their injured comrades, for their families and friends. It was no longer an "occasion". It was a full-blown tragedy. The scene of the crime had to be stripped bare, so that it could be seen clearly for what it was.

You can look anywhere on the Internet, but you won't see that image; it was taken by a Canadian Press photographer but then promptly withheld for fear that it would seem somehow "inappropriate". I happen to have seen that picture, if only because I happen to have studied another "unwomanly" thing, namely journalism; it was in one of my textbooks. But it was never published for general consumption. Watered-down, decorous, "appropriate" things made their way onto the front pages of newspapers instead: piles of plastic-wrapped bouquets in snow, close-ups of the black granite monument to the dead, and so on.

I think that very "inappropriate" photo should be made widely available. Not out of disrespect for the victim or her loved ones, but precisely because it is so honest, so unguarded and so moving. There is no way such a picture could desensitize us to senseless violence; it has the opposite effect for me and for everyone else who ever saw it. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry all over again, in the way I did back then, when I sat in a group of women at the first memorial, just days after the shooting. Tears ran involuntarily down my cheeks; there was a strip of purple sweatsuit fleece tied around my coatsleeve, a badge of feminist mourning. I was not there to pay decorous respects, but to place myself in some kind of defiant solidarity, however fumbling and inadequate. I was there to make my own sense out of the "senseless" tragedy, and not to accept the official platitudes. Hence the purple; hence my angry, anguished tears.

Solidarity is not about mouthing the proper "respectful" platitudes, patting things down, smoothing them over and then, like a well-brought-up little lady, forgetting and going back to your kitchen, lesson learned. No. Solidarity involves messy grieving, sudden remembrance and sudden tears, and all kinds of other inappropriate and hardcore unladylike behavior. It doesn't give a fuck for good manners. It threatens established orders and, if carried out long and thoroughly enough, smashes through such arbitrary barriers as once declared that a school--be it of engineering, journalism or whatever--is not a place for men only, and certainly not a place for incompetent men simply because they are men. Solidarity fights for rights; it disdains the decorous preservation of unearned privilege.

Solidarity is highly "inappropriate". It smashes pat assumptions and antiquated notions, and sweeps entire world orders aside. It is a flip of the bird in the face of the harasser, a woman confronting a subway flasher and not letting him slink quietly off, the rage that prompted suffragettes to multiply, not disperse, when one of their number was beaten to death by the hooves of a horse. It is also the tears of a woman studying journalism, disagreeing in a silent rage about what is "respectful", believing, however "inappropriately", that publishing and widely disseminating such a picture might well be the only way to finally shut up the stupid fuckers who keep kvetching about their precious "right" to own a gun. A "right" which, like driving a car, is really not a right, but only a privilege, to be rescinded when abused. Just like the male privilege of sexism, which was never a man's right, but only a privilege. Which women could rescind whenever they got angry and fed up enough to finally stop behaving themselves and make some fucking history, and demand the rights that male privilege arrogates only to itself, while at the same time, smugly and decorously denying them--arbitrarily and without reason--to women. And one of those rights, the most fundamental, is the right of a woman to live.

THAT, my dears, is solidarity. It isn't meek, mild, modest or nicey-nice. It placates no one. It calls out bullshit of all stenches. It may start with an individual crying or raging here or there, but it is not about individuals or mincy-poncy individual rights, because talk of individual rights soon becomes bullshit. Solidarity is universal, and it demands universal rights, universal justice, no stinking exceptions. It gets goddamn motherfucking angry at times, and it is when solidarity gets angry that shit finally gets done. Because solidarity, when angry, goes out looking for allies and, by Goddess, it FINDS them.

And angry solidarity has done much for women in Canada. It prompted Heidi Rathjen and Wendy Cukier to band together, seeking and finding popular support for gun control, which eventually became law. It has taken guns out of the hands of robbers, rapists and killers, and put useful tools in the hands of police chiefs determined to put a stop to the violence. It prompted a group of Québecois feminists, under the editorship of Louise Malette and Marie Chalouh, to compile their essays into a marvelous book (which still reads as fresh and relevant today as it did twenty years ago), cutting the decorous bullshit away from the Massacre even as early as one year after. Angry, out-of-line women have improved the world for their sisters, and yes, for their brothers, too. Do we thank them best by placating them with rituals that ring more hollow with every passing year? Or do we do it by getting angry, seeking solidarity, and carrying the work forward with timely, "inappropriate" reminders of what it's really all about?

If I had a scanner, I would publish that "inappropriate" picture of the dead woman in the Polytechnique cafeteria--right here, right now. She died having taken for granted--too soon--the equal rights my feminist foremothers honestly thought they had won for her. She is innocent, and showing her as she was at that moment could never disgrace her or do her harm; it would be, on the contrary, a truer way to honor her memory. As a feminist I ought to be able to freely hold up her picture and say, Here is proof that we are not truly equal yet. This woman died at the hands of a misogynist. Did she die in vain? Dare we deny her?

Denial of hard realities is the ultimate disgrace; to bury a painful memory is to piss on it and learn nothing from it. Bearing that in mind, let us now remember this:

If real equality existed, it would never have entered into the mind of Marc Lépine to gun her down; he would have seen her as someone with an equal right to the same education he wanted for himself, stopped blaming others, buckled down to the tasks at hand, and welcomed her as a colleague and comrade, not a "feminist" enemy. And perhaps neither she nor her classmates would have been as quick to defensively distance themselves from the women's movement as some of them were at the time. They would not have seen it as some kind of nasty shit-disturbing inappropriate thing, but as a right and just movement that had done much for them and that deserved due recognition and gratitude. And that gratitude would not be decorous; it might be as simple as saying proudly, even in the face of certain death: Yes, I am a feminist. And fuck you if you don't like it!

Is that an inappropriate thing to say, 21 years later, when all the hurting is supposed to be scarred over and decorously "remembered" but, in the final analysis, buried and forgotten?

Maybe. But you know what? I don't care about any of that.

You can run us down with horses, or gun us down with Rugers--we are still here. You can mouth platitudes while slyly trying to take away what we have won, but we won't let you. We are onto you. We reject your "respect" and your "appropriate" tokenism. We are still grieving, still raging and still fighting, because deep down in our blood, we know we are not equal yet.

And we are not going the hell away.

Well-behaved women seldom make history. --Laurel Thatcher Ulrich