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September 15, 2012

Quebec: Just a crazy man with a gun?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Last week in Canada, in the province of Quebec Richard Henry Bain shot and killed Denis Blanchette, who was trying to prevent him from entering the building where Pauline Marois was addressing her Parti Québécois supporters following the Quebec election in which her party won the most seats. The Canadian media reported Bain is bipolar. Isn't that the explanation for his behavior? Need we look further? Yes, we must.

The behavior of people who are mentally ill, just as that of those who are not, is determined by the culture and social milieu in which that behavior takes place.  The illness alone does not determine the behavior.  Culture is a determinant both of normative and of deviant behavior.

For starters, the choice of a gun and the arrival on the scene with various firearms is reflective of the North American (read American) love affair with guns and our preoccupation with them.  Bain is into guns in a big way.  Then there is his own declaration upon being captured: “The English are waking up!” and “pay-back time”.  What is the social context in which these words are uttered?

Pauline Marois ran her campaign as the candidate from Hérouxville.  English institutions would be challenged.  The English CEGEPs (junior colleges) would be off limits to all but the certified Anglophone minority, thus weakening them.  Bill 101, which gives priority to the French language, would be strengthened, at the expense of other languages but especially of English.

Her proposed Charter of Secularism would target ethnic apparel—except for the cross.  Bain might well have been driven by her “secularism”.  The culture-bondage in which she is entwined and which she promotes brings us the milieu in which a psychologically deranged individual might act.

One can look at other instances of such “crazy” behavior. 

Norway’s Anders Brevik was found to be sane, but that finding only means that he can be found criminally responsible.  It definitely does not mean that he has all his marbles.  The cultural milieu in which he was immersed is that of xenophobia, fearing immigrants and Muslims.  That is not the general milieu in Norway, but it is not difficult to find it in Norway and internationally.  Racism goes world-wide through the internet.

American Sirhan Sirhan was clearly mentally ill, though possibly sane in a legal sense, when he shot Robert Kennedy.  His behavior cannot be ascribed simply to his illness.  He is a Palestinian who was upset by Kennedy’s support of Israel.  Without that factor, whatever behavior in which his illness might have manifested itself, it would not have been in assassinating Kennedy. 

The anthropologist Leslie White posed this question: Why do revolutionaries appear only during periods of revolutionary crisis?  “Perhaps for the same reason that great rivers so frequently flow past great cities.”  So why does a Richard Henry Bain arise?  What are the “great rivers” that might explain? 

Let us pursue this line of reasoning to identify factors in our culture and social milieu that may be things onto which other disturbed individuals might latch to impel them to kill.  We have already spoken of the gun as a means.  It is also a possible motivation.  (“Are you trying to take my guns away?”)  Bain illustrates the issue of ethnic conflict, and aspects of that conflict could form the cultural basis for “crazy” behavior by a deranged person.  Such a person could, for example, be from either English- or French-speaking milieu. 

A constant source of conflict is over language policy.  Bilingualism in Canada is important, not the least because it provides opportunities.  The opposite of that is a lack of opportunity for the unilingual.  Our education systems hardly address this matter in an adequate fashion.  The social psychologist John Dollard said, “Anticipation of failure is equivalent of anticipation of punishment.” 

There are times when job requirements of bilingualism are brushed aside, for the favored candidate for a position.  Inevitably, the person promises to learn French.  But have you ever heard of a person being appointed on the basis of a promise to learn English? 

From time to time, there are killings related to job loss, especially to being fired.  The culture of the workplace has changed over the years in two directions.  Labor law has put a damper on some of the most egregious treatment of workers, but on the other hand work has become more precarious—part-time, temporary, casual.  The workplace is the milieu in which such acts may well occur from time to time.

In short, it is not enough to say that a killer is crazy.  We need to look at what made that “crazy” person choose that target, using that method.  We need to consider what aspects of our culture might attract a deranged person to such behavior.  We might also ask ourselves if there are things that can be done to lessen the risks of such occurrences.  To begin, we might look at our love affair with the gun.

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