Written by Amal Abdullah
On Monday, April 23, 25-year-old Richmond Hill resident Alek Minassian crashed his van into a sidewalk full of pedestrians at the intersection of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue in Toronto. Canadians from coast to coast came together to mourn the tragedy that killed 10 and injured 16. Grieving a true catastrophe of innocent lives lost and guiltless people taken unjustly on Canadian soil, we united as one body of Canadians and cheered for #TorontoStrong.
However, not all Canadians grieved the victims. You will always have vacuous bigots who will shamelessly use every opportunity — with no sympathy or empathy for an issue as sensitive as innocent lives lost — to promote their narrow-minded agendas. Within minutes of the incident, social media, Canadian news outlets, and global news outlets exploded with broadcasts. As news spread, the question that I assume crosses everyone’s mind whenever we hear of such an attack began to emerge: was it a radical Islamic terrorist who worked for ISIS?
Certainly, this thought materialized in digital and traditional news mediums in dramatic ways. Canadaland, a crowdfunded platform for “independent Canadian journalism,” reports that during a phone interview on CP24, a well-credited Toronto news channel, that occurred within the hour of the incident, a witness vaguely described the attacker as “a Middle Eastern-ish man”, but admitted that “I’m not sure, that’s what I immediately thought…I can’t confirm or deny whether my observation is correct.”
As a result of this single ambiguous account, Twitter burst with angry accusations and allegations against minorities and racialized peoples — the usual scapegoats. One only has to scroll through the hashtags that were used, which were originally intended to rally support rather than hate, to see the negative responses. An unfortunate consequence of social media is that people’s real-time reactions to real-time events, no matter how nasty or ugly, are immortalized on the internet.
Around the same time, CBC News reporter Natasha Fatah sent a tweet that said “#BREAKING Witness to truck ramming into pedestrians tells local Toronto TV station that the driver looked wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern.” At the time of writing, the tweet had gained 1.5K retweets and 2.1K likes. An hour later, she sent another tweet that said, “Another eye witness to the Yonge and Sheppard incident describes van’s driver as white, intentionally hitting people, describing it as a terror attack.” At the time of writing, the tweet had received 190 retweets and 161 likes.
It is no coincidence that the sheer amount of social media engagement was so much higher for the first tweet than for the second. As per usual, many were reluctant to describe Alek Minassian as a white radicalized terrorist. He was a white man with enough privilege to be described in a Globe and Mail headline as a “socially awkward tech expert,” and a man whose former high school and college classmates claimed him to have had “no known religious or political affiliations or strong views on anything.” His declaration on Facebook of being an “incel” — short for “involuntary celibate,” an identity used by members of a violent and misogynistic internet subculture — apparently did not warrant the label of a “terrorist”.
The 21st century is a time where “fake news” of hate and bigotry is a common phenomenon. It’s promoted as big and scary, with all capital letters, noise, and clamor, much like a hairy Sasquatch or a Loch Ness monster. The truth is, bigotry gets views and clicks because it rounds people up against “the other.” People are attracted to sensational news: it makes more money to lead an audience to believe it was radical Islamic terrorists who carried out the attack than it does to blame a white man.
It is unfortunate and disgusting that we barely had any time to mourn the fallen, to commemorate their lives and grieve their tragic deaths, before we had to begin to fight the racists and the bigots for the sake of the safety of those who are still alive. It is a great disservice, if not an insult and an affront, to the fallen that bigots shamelessly use this incident to promote their vested agendas. Now, if someone tries to convince me that Canada is better than Trump’s America, I don’t know if I’ll believe them.