Canada attack: It's time to speak about the 'unspeakable'

Attacks such as this week's in London, Ontario will continue unabated if we don't address their underlying causes

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Why? Why? Why? The question swamped my mind as I tried to make sense of the horrific murder of almost an entire family by a 20-year-old Canadian man in London, Ontario.

Why, I asked myself, when I saw a picture of the grandmother, father, mother, daughter and son, smiling from ear to ear as they posed for a photograph, enveloped by greenery? How can you see that image of tranquility and think to yourself, as this man thought, that I must destroy it?

And what will the youngest of the family, a nine-year-old boy, think when he wakes up in the emergency room, only to realise that everyone he ever loved is gone? Why did he have to endure this hatred and suffering?

On Sunday night, this family of five – including Madiha Salman, 44, her husband Salman Afzaal, 46, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Afzaal and Afzaal's 74-year-old mother – were on their daily walk when the man mounted the curb and ran over them in what police described as a premeditated hate crime that targeted them because of their Muslim faith.

What does a 20-year-old know of life to hate so thoroughly, to murder with such abandon? To plan for and enact such cruelty? To reflect and ponder and then destroy?

We probably will not reflect sufficiently on those questions. But we should, because the condemnations and the “we stand by you”s and the “this is not us”es all ring hollow. They always have. Every shooting at a mosque, every mass murder at a black church, every bombing and defacement of a synagogue, is a product of hatred, of social media and technology companies profiting off this rage, of trans-nationalist political ideology that weaponises racism and inequality, and of siloed, broken communities and societies where runaway greed and wealth have obliterated civic duty, coexistence, sacrifice and decency.

No number of “we share your pain”s will fix any of that.

London’s mayor said the attack was a rooted in “unspeakable hatred". Actually, we should totally speak about this hatred, and why it manifests itself.

Canada's' Trudeau at Muslim family vigil says no to Islamophobia, no to terrorism

Canada's' Trudeau at Muslim family vigil says no to Islamophobia, no to terrorism

Let’s speak about the social media and tech companies who have developed a business model where amplifying hatred equals surging profits. Where engagement is maintained by funnelling users towards more and more extreme content, because rage-bait generates clicks, creating an ecosystem of hatred, vilification and cruelty that sustains and nurtures radicalisation – of white nationalists, Islamist terrorists, settler supremacists, and every brand of extremist in between. Their toxic business model threatens American and other democracies, is instrumental in the perpetration of hate crimes and terrorist violence around the world, and is corrosive to the fabric of society. And we keep letting them get away with it.

Let’s speak about the bigotry and prejudice we perpetuate and pass on to our sons and daughters, purposely or inadvertently, when we teach them to despise or fear another. Let’s not hide behind “this is not us", because it is us. Who else did it, if not us?

Let's speak about the unfettered capitalism and inequality that has destroyed what sense of community and empathy we had towards one another, that has conditioned us to pursue only our self-interest at the cost of civic duty and the greater good, where a sacrifice as minor as putting a piece of cloth on your face to protect the vulnerable from a virus is a transgression against liberty, and where resentment is the predominant emotion in the public discourse.

And let’s talk about the politicians who have weaponised this resentment to prey on the weak, to punch down at the destitute, to win elections on the backs of the downtrodden by making manifest in an election platform every base instinct of hatred, cruelty and bigotry that they can summon from the deep pits of humanity.

I don’t know what precisely motivated a 20-year-old man to plan this murder, to get into his car and make the conscious decision to run over a family on their daily walk because of which god they pray to. I don’t know what evil sustained him in those moments before it happened, what dark night of the soul did not stay that hand on the steering wheel. I’m afraid to know the answer, really, because whatever the answer is it will not change that this level of cruelty exists and can be replicated.

But of this I am certain: not knowing why means it will happen again. It means more Christchurch mosque shootings, more Charleston Church massacres, more Tree of Life Synagogue shootings, more Quebec mosque massacres, and more London, Ontario murders, here and elsewhere.

It will happen again if we don’t figure out why.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National