It’s disturbing how the words used to describe an event shape the way it is experienced, the importance it is attributed. Choice of words, particularly in a news headline, suggest to the public what our reaction should be.
The word “massacre” has been used by many media outlets in connection to the killing of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta on Mar 3. This choice of language seems disrespectful in its excess, its over the top-ness. It’s almost as if we have to be told to care, as though four officers being killed in the line of duty, four workers losing their lives while going about their jobs, is somehow not sufficient enough for the average person to experience an emotional reaction. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe we’re just too numb to the tragedies of the world to mourn four people we never knew.
But clearly we should care about these four men because they have come to represent something bigger than themselves, the importance of individual sacrifice for the good of the community.
Overblown language turns tragedy into fodder for propaganda. The deaths of these men have been used to sell the public on the need to crack down on illegal drug trafficking, the uselessness of the national gun registry and the importance of unwavering (and unquestioning) support for police forces.
Furthermore, it cheapens language to use it so cavalierly. As senseless and tragic as it is, four people killed is hardly a massacre. Hell, the world can’t even agree to call the deaths of 50-plus Palestinian refugees atJenin in 2002 a massacre.
(You may wonder why I’m making such a big fuss over the use of a single word, “massacre.” Similarly, I sometimes wonder why so many people make such a big deal over the word “marriage.”)
One word that hasn’t shown up anywhere in relation to the “Mayerthorpe massacre” is “gay.” Despite the fact that the man who killed these four officers, James Roszko, had been convicted of sexual assault against a young male relative, beginning when the boy was 10 years old, and accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting another male, a teenager, at gunpoint, nowhere has he been referred to as homosexual.
I suppose we should all be relieved. I mean, do we really want to be openly associated with an antisocial gun-toting cop-killing paedophile?
But there are two things that bother me about this omission. The first is that there’s no engagement with the possibility that homophobia, internalized or otherwise, played a part in turning Roszko into the “wicked devil” his father recently described him as.
James was the youngest son in a devoutly Ukrainian Catholic family in rural Alberta. According to an interview with the Calgary Herald, Papa Roszko says “things became haywire” when his youngest son was 11. Although the mainstream media is correlating this to the time when his mother left home, I can’t help but wonder if his burgeoning sexuality and a less than accepting environment played a part in the boy’s sudden turn toward antisocial behaviour.
The second sticking point is the implication that queer men aren’t killers. Oh sure, lesbians kill. Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian prostitute on whom the movie Monster was based, who was executed in 2002 for killing six of her johns; Elaine Rose Cece and Barbara Ann Taylor, the couple who stabbed a plainclothes officer to death in Toronto in 1998; Cherylle Dell, the Ontario woman who was found guilty in 2001 of poisoning her ex-husband – you don’t have to look far to find examples of dykes who did the dirty deed.
But as much as the mainstream may be comfortable with funny fag fashionistas who wouldn’t hurt a fly, butch gay men have yet to come into their own. And you can’t really get more butch than gunning someone down in cold blood.
Now, I’m not proposing that we base a sitcom around Roszko, but I don’t want us to be sidestepping the realities either. Which brings me to another choice of words: “tolerance” versus “acceptance.” Now that we’ve won the public over with a plethora of pleasant one-dimensional representations, it’s time to break it to them that queers are just as complex and complicated creatures as any other human being. And yes, some of us are downright fucked up.