IT will be a quiet Christmas for many in Montreal this year. Hearts go out to the families who have just buried their daughters, victims of the worst mass murder in Canadian history. What do we make of an unemployed young man who brings a semiautomatic rifle to the engineering school of the University of Montreal and opens fire?
At first, this was a story that couldn't happen. Civilized, sensible Canadians don't go in for ``American-style violence.'' The murder rate in Canada is only a fraction that of the United States. Some Canadians tuning into news reports of the tragedy at first assumed it had happened in the United States.
The realization that it had not took away many Canadians' smugness about their security, and has left them wondering why semiautomatic rifles should be so available, anyway.
And then it became clear that this was a crime fueled by hatred of women. The 13 students wounded in the rampage included men and women, but the 14 killed were all women.
At a candlelight vigil the night after the shooting, a (male) student leader, speaking in French, referred to those killed by the male or generic pronoun ceux, instead of the feminine celles.
Women in the group shouted him down, with one calling out, ``It is women who are dead!''
The killer, who finally shot himself to death, left a note blaming ``feminists'' for all the many failures in his life, including failure to get into engineering school.
Society - Canadian society, Western society, the whole world - has to step up to this one. Women claiming their rightful places in schools, in the workplace, in public life, need to know that they do not put themselves at risk of attack by doing so.
Montreal Mayor Jean Dore observed that the killings were an ``illustration that a certain amount of men in our society have not accepted in their hearts and heads the equality of men and women.''
Even as we feel compassion for those who have suffered and died, we shouldn't be overwhelmed by the Montreal shootings - either as an attack on women or as an indication that Canadian civilization is disintegrating. But antifeminist backlash cannot be allowed to let society off the hook. As we ask why there are so many guns floating around, we must also ask why women are so undervalued, and why violence and hatred against them are tolerated to the extent they still are.
Women should not bear the burden of proving their right to their ambitions and aspirations. When Martin Luther King Jr. set forth his great vision of racial equality, he didn't say, ``Excuse me, I don't mean to be pushy, but if you don't mind, I have a dream.''
Why should women have any less right to dream? Are gender differences are so subtle but so overwhelming that relations between the sexes are out of the jurisdiction of the Golden Rule?
After the funerals in Montreal, a group of men made their way by night to a women's dormitory at the University of Toronto to set off a string of firecrackers. The women, fearing another attack, screamed in horror.
Some prank, huh?
The firecrackers bear a relationship to the semiautomatic rifle. And the Western yuppie parents-to-be just back from their ultrasound session, who realize they're just a bit more delighted with the news ``It's a boy!'' than they might have thought, bear a certain relationship to the Indians who abort a fetus discovered to be female, the Chinese parents who smother a baby girl, or the famine-plagued Africans who starve their daughters so that their sons might live.
Of course males have their vulnerabilities, too. That is the other part of the tragedy in Montreal. How does someone like Marc Lepine, the man with the gun, fall through one of the holes in the social fabric? How can someone just drift away like that? He ``fit to a T the mass murderer's profile,'' as one Canadian writer put it. Reportedly the victim of an abusive father, he was unsuccessful in his relationships with women; although said to be very intelligent, he didn't leave much of a trail in school.
Indeed, his very lack of a trail might be his most distinguishing feature. What, in an atomized world, can be done to give such lives some kind of meaning?
Most of Lepine's surviving victims have not spoken to the press, but one who did is Nathalie Provost. She has been telling reporters, ``You can make people understand men and women are equal and we were made by God to live on the same planet and we can have the same hope of life.''
And it's important that her fellow students go on. ``If some girls don't go through Polytechnique, don't finish their course, we let the guy win. He will win.
``We can't let that happen.''