In the late afternoon of December 6, 1989, a lone gunman shot and killed 14 women and wounded 14 more at l’Ecole Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal. The attacker was armed with a hunting knife and a Sturm Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle, which he legally owned. Born Gamil Gharbi (his father’s last name) in 1964, he changed his name to Marc Lepine in 1982. He perpetrated the massacre at the age of 25.
The attack was not random. Lepine targeted women at l’Ecole Polytechnique, a school he wanted to attend. Ultimately, he was turned away not only from l’Ecole Polytechnique, but also from the Canadian Armed Forces. In his suicide note, he cited affirmative action policies that he believed gave women preferential treatment over men. Lepine especially hated feminists and blamed them for his losing out on opportunities that he, as a man, felt he should have had, one of which was a seat in l’Ecole Polytechnique. “[T]he feminists always have a talent for enraging me,” he said in his suicide note, according to Toronto CityNews (2006), adding that “They want to retain the advantages of being women (e.g., cheaper insurance, extended maternity leave preceded by a preventive leave) while trying to grab those of the men.” In the unfolding of the massacre, Lepine told the men to leave the room and shot the remaining women, whom he had ordered to line up against a wall.
Much of the commentary after the massacre focused on whether Lepine was an insane monster or a social barometer. Was he just a seriously deluded man who acted out his hatred toward women, or was the massacre an extreme expression of more common forms of sexism and misogyny? In other words, did Lepine’s actions and the motivation behind them reflect an ugly characteristic of men and of society?
Some might argue the former, that Lepine was mentally ill and thus was different from most men. Lepine himself predicted in his suicide note that the news media would brand him a “Mad Killer.” From this perspective, it might be said that most men were not “like him” and that Lepine was a “monster” who acted on his own accord. A psychological perspective would focus on the abuse he experienced at the hands of his father, as reported by his mother Monique Lepine in her 2008 book Aftermath. They might also draw attention to his appetite for war movies and violent computer games, as his mother described in an interview in MacLean’s magazine. As psychiatrist Susan Penfold (1990) pointed out, a person with particular mental illnesses can sometimes come to believe that outside agencies such as the devil or the CIA are conspiring against her or him. Penfold suggested that, in Lepine’s case, the outside “agency” was feminists.
The abuse that Lepine endured at the hands of his father provides little explanation for his rampage. Many men have been abused as boys by their fathers, yet the overwhelming majority do not commit mass murder. However, consideration of Lepine’s actions within the social and political climate provides a more compelling theory behind his actions. Lepine’s hatred and decision to murder women was extraordinary and extreme, giving him a status that separated him from ordinary men. Yet, the massacre occurred during a backlash against feminism that was in high gear in the conservative 1980s. Among neoconservatives, feminists (and others such as gays and lesbians) were blamed for the perceived moral decay in society and for attacks on the nuclear family, thought to be the cornerstone of American civilization. In addition, feminist men point out that violence against women in various forms (e.g., beatings, rapes, murders) is perpetrated by “normal” men on a daily basis. Further, violence against women is routinely depicted in media such as TV programs, movies, and video games. Thus, for some, Lepine’s rampage against women is merely an extreme version of the everyday sexism and misogyny to which boys and men need to subscribe to succeed in a male-dominated world. In a biblical context, perhaps the story of Eve may be seen as an early example of men blaming the ills of society on women. In his own suicide note, Lepine blamed feminism for all of his troubles, indicating that his rampage was a political act. The massacre was planned and executed to get even with women, especially those he disparaged as “feminists.”
For Green (2005), the massacre cannot be reduced to the “anomalous act of a madman.” Rather, this author points out that such reductionism denies “the reality that misogyny is a social problem, present in our political culture and perpetuated by our popular culture and our faith-based myths that denigrate women” (pp. 2-3). Prior to the Montreal massacre, Kaufman (1987) wrote that “violence is … the individual man acting out relations of sexual power; [and] . the violence of a society … being focused through an individual man onto an individual woman” (p. 1). Mass murderers in the modern age attempt to make political statements or magnify social tensions through their actions.
For many feminists and allies, however, the massacre prompted discussion of the wider issue of violence against women. Green (2005) points out that the “normative-ness of misogynist attitudes toward women makes the emergence of Lepine . possible.” Similarly, Kaufman argues that Lepine was not a “monster” but rather was “rational” in his response to the gains made by feminists for equality with men. In an open letter to Lepine published in the Toronto Star, Kaufman (1990) asks him:
By the way, did you hear the great line from one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest films? Right before he blew away his wife he says, “Consider this a divorce.” Thought you’d like that one. These days there’s great stuff on TV and in the movies that I know you’d love to see; to make you realize that you weren’t alone.
In his suicide note, Lepine himself observed that, “Even though the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media, I consider myself a rational and erudite person … “
For Brickman (1992), the Montreal massacre was thus “neither a surprising nor an isolated event” (p. 136). She explains that most “[female] abuse victims expected to be killed if they did not conform to the demands, expectations, and fantasies, explicit and implied of their [male] abuser” (p. 136). Lepine learned from his abusive father that women were not equal with men. Further, the particular social script of masculinity to which Lepine was exposed was one of violent masculinity. It is significant that the overwhelming majority of school shooters are boys and men, and likewise the perpetrators of violent crime. For pro-feminist theorists and activists, school shootings, and especially anti-feminist massacres, are extreme examples of everyday violent masculinity as “a cultural norm.” For feminists groups, the massacre galvanized many to speak out against violence against women that, unlike the sensation of the Montreal incident itself, tends not to capture media or public attention.
In 1991, the Parliament of Canada established December 6 as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. The Day of Remembrance calls for a minute of silence to honor all women who have been victims of violence at the hands of men. It was initiated as a response to the inescapable fact that women at l’Ecole Polytechnique were targeted and brutally gunned down. Evidently, the data showing that many other women have been killed by their husbands and male partners were not sufficient to spark such a national spotlight on violence against women, even though “wives and romantic or sexual partners are the most common victims of murderous men” (Green, 2005).
The Day of Remembrance also calls for men to educate themselves and one another about male-perpetrated violence against women. In 1991, a small group of pro-feminist men in Canada launched the first White Ribbon campaign to address men’s violence against women. According to the White Ribbon website, the campaign is now “the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women,” involving people in more than 55 countries.
In addition to White Ribbon campaigns and the annual National Day of Remembrance, lobbying for tighter gun control laws ensued in the aftermath of the Montreal massacre. Such efforts resulted in the passing in 1995 of Bill C-68 (the Firearms Act), which established a gun registry in Canada. Critics have charged that this measure is ineffective and costs Canadians millions of dollars. Supporters have argued that such gun control policies are necessary to reduce the harm from, or even prevent, further shooting sprees. The debate continues in light of other school shootings that have occurred since the massacre, including another attack in Montreal–the Dawson College shooting in 2006 that resulted in one death and several injured.
Public memorials to honor the victims of the Montreal massacre have been erected in several Canadian cities, including Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, and Vancouver. These sites are among the many others that memorialize women killed by men in Canada. A memorial ceremony also marks the event on the l’Ecole Polytechnique campus. Such memorials are controversial, however. Criticism of them tends to focus on the perception that Lepine was a lone madman rather than evidence of hatred in wider society. Supporters advocate addressing violence against women as a social problem rather than as an individual pathology, in part through public memorials as a visible and continual reminder. Rosenberg (2006) argues that such memorials are a form of public pedagogy, which “is tied broadly to cultural practices and to any public, cultural endeavour to shape political visions of the past, present, and/or future” (p. 27). These debates continue.
The Montreal massacre remains the worst case of mass killing in Canadian history.
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- White Ribbon campaign: Men working to end men’s violence against women. (2013). http://www.whiteribbon.ca/