I used to consider myself an anarchist. As a teen, I had very little to rebel against—my parents were reasonable, our social standing was enviable, and most of the rules and laws I followed seemed pretty fair, really—yet I needed some way to explore the idea of “freedom,” so I embraced the ideal of a world without laws. I guess I had enough faith in humanity, I figured we’d all just instinctively get along. My choice to obey would be more satisfying than my perceived obligation to obey.
It was all a dumb game of what-ifs, and I outgrew it faster than I did my store-bought, made-in-China t-shirt with the red anarchist “A” on the front.
Recently, in my forties, I’ve embraced civil disobedience in the face of “reasonable” laws. Many of my peers, and probably most of my elders, don’t get it; maybe they see it as a mid-life re-run of my aimless rebellion. I lump them in with all the other climate deniers, and kept on doing what I felt was right. Internally, I walk the line between progressive (“let’s just tweak the parts of society that are leading us straight into climate catastrophe, and leave the rest as is”) and radical (“the problems are deep and systemic and everything needs to change”). To the outside world, I appear to have dug out that ratty old Anarchy t-shirt again.
Then came covid. And then came a mass shooting incident in my peaceful little province. Both crises were unimaginable until they happened. Both events raise agonizing questions about law & order, about the roles and responsibilities of both authorities and civilians. When they are stacked on top of each other, it’s almost impossible to know where to start—how to process the worst case scenarios, especially when your daily routine still feels mind-numbingly normal.
I went for a walk this morning. The high school down the street from me, normally a hub of noise and hormones and cigarette butts, was shuttered and silent. I thought about all the other buildings, designed to hold crowds, now sitting empty: sports arenas, concert halls, courtrooms, theatres. Until recently, they would all have been deemed important parts of our culture—essential for being who we need to be.
We have agreed to forsake them, even though it causes us mental anguish. We did the “right thing,” the altruistic thing: flatten the curve, protect the weak, alone together. Never mind the fact that climate activists have been calling for almost the same systemic changes, and for the same reasons (protecting the vulnerable, i.e. future generations). The covid crisis fits into the mental slot that activates our instincts for preserving the herd. We know how to shelter at home; we did it back when we were monkeys.
The tough part, the cognitive and moral dissonance, comes from our assumption that just because we stop, everything else stops. It’s a persuasive illusion. On my morning walk, I saw maybe three other people, all of them moving as slowly as I. How can there be problems in the wider world, when everyone has hit “pause”?
The shooting rampage in mainland Nova Scotia would have been jarring at any time, but I think it’s especially devastating now. There are practical reasons for this—how can the victims’ families grieve, or even seek answers, when they’re not allowed to get within 2 meters of other people?—but mostly, it’s a psychological invasion, a breakdown of the half-articulated quasi-law: We are being kind to each other right now.
In other words, voluntarily staying home to stop the spread of a virus? That’s the right kind of anarchy. Driving around shooting people at random? Definitely the wrong kind of anarchy.
There’s another level of conundrum here, that has to do with authority and law enforcement. It’s still early days in the investigation, but it’s pretty clear that the RCMP allowed a manhunt to unfold over 13 hours without issuing a general public alert. In fact, the killer was dressed up as a Mountie, and driving a vehicle disguised as a Mountie’s car—information that could have saved lives, if the public had known it earlier.
Most Canadians put an inordinate amount of trust in authorities, and the Mounties in particular. Those who have been oppressed by law enforcement—mostly POC, Indigenous people, LGBT+, and other vulnerable groups—know better than to put blind faith in a uniform. But mostly we’ve been conditioned to open our doors wide to the Red Serge—a trait this killer exploited to the hilt. At least some of those 23 people died because they trusted the law and let down their guard.
Now, I worry that the mental strain caused by lockdowns will provoke more violence. And I worry that we are especially vulnerable because we’re all following orders. Most of all, I worry because all of the corruption and malice that ran through our world like electric current—from CEOs willfully poisoning Earth to cops abusing power—continues to flow. Our response to the pandemic makes it look like humanity has suddenly evolved to a new tier of compassion and mutual care; but underneath the kumbayas, there is even more opportunity for evildoers to do harm.
I don’t know what to do. Toughen up gun laws, certainly. Remain vigilant without succumbing to paranoia. And ask ourselves: When the pandemic is over, and the lockdowns are lifted, do we want to go back to “business as usual”? Or can this experience radicalize us, help us imagine a better system, and give us the incentive to fight for it?