The struggle to ‘explain’ the Toronto attack

We humans are a curious species (in both senses of the word ‘curious’). The foremost question on our minds is always Why?  Why is the sky blue?  Why do the seasons change?  Why can’t a Canadian team win the Stanley Cup?  Why? Why? WHY?

Our insatiable need to know extends to tragic events, such as that which happened yesterday in Toronto.  A 25-year old Caucasian rents a van, drives over people on Yonge Street in the early afternoon, challenges a police officer with a cellphone and is arrested and charged.  The questions come fast and furious:

  • why did he do this?
  • were there signs that something was amiss?
  • why did the Crown not lay terrorism charges?
  • why was better protection not put in place on Yonge Street?
  • what can we do to prevent this (okay , that’s a ‘what’ and not a ‘why’ question)?

All very good questions and many of which I have no answers to, but I am willing to put my 35+ years in security intelligence and post civil service terrorism analysis to offer some preliminary guesses.  So, in order:

  • we don’t know why and we may never know why.  Get used to that.  The suspect may talk but he may not.  We must wait and see.  Maybe interviews with family, friends and classmates will help.  Maybe the police will find incriminating material.  Then again maybe not.  What is NOT definitive at this stage, and I would suggest more sober thought be given to these issues before people post their ‘theories’, is all the speculation about incel (‘involuntary celibate’: I know I am  old but am the only person who had no idea what that meant before last night?), social awkwardness, a 16-day stay in the Canadian military, Asperger’s syndrome, Armenian heritage, etc.  Some of this may be relevant but then again all of it may be peripheral.  We need much more data before pronouncing on any of this.
  • there are ALWAYS signs.  A lack of indicators is never the problem.  Picking up on them and knowing what to do with them often is.
  • the Crown lays charges where there is sufficient evidence to do so.  The suspect clearly planned his action and killed 10 people and wounded another 16, hence the first degree murder charges. As we have no information on motive, we cannot expect terrorism charges, which require solid information that he did what he did for ideology, religion or political motives, as we commonly understand those terms. Remember, hate is not a cause on its own.
  • we cannot and will never be able to protect everywhere.  We do not have the resources to do so.  Besides, do you want to live in a society where everything is on lockdown?  I don’t.
  • bad things happen and they are not always someone’s ‘fault’ (aside from the person who carries out the bad thing).  We cannot ask perfection from our protectors.  They stop way more bad things than you realise but they do not have the means to stop them all.  If you are skeptical do me a favour: join CSIS, the RCMP or Toronto Police and use your brilliant ideas to make a positive difference.  That sure beats raging on Twitter, doesn’t it?

I have seen and read a lot of ‘analysis’ by people who appear to be pretty sure of themselves less than a day after this incident.  My ‘spidey senses’ tell me one of two things: a) these people are omniscient gods or b) these people are speculating well beyond what the available information allows us to use to craft our analysis.  I am going out on a limb here and choosing b).

By all means share your ideas but do so politely and judiciously.  I am as interested as the next guy in new ideas.  What I have less time for is rumour, fearmongering and hateful rhetoric.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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