It had to happen, I suppose. Around two million fans of the Toronto Raptors basketball team packed the city’s downtown streets for a victory celebration.

Then, someone took a gun into the crowd. And started shooting.

Four people were wounded. Three people were arrested; two firearms seized.

As I write this column, three suspects have been named; a fourth is being hunted. So far, no one has offered a motive for the shooting.

You’re expecting another rant about guns and gun control. Not this time — because I think there’s a bigger issue involved.

In case there’s any doubt, I do oppose guns. I did have a BB gun as a teenager. I haven’t owned a gun since; we didn’t let our children play with guns.

But the real problem is not guns. It’s our ever-growing desire to distance ourselves from the effects of our actions.

The shooter, or shooters, in Toronto could just as easily have used a knife. (Indeed, someone did, about an hour earlier, injuring four more celebrants.) Or a baseball bat. But he didn’t. Because those weapons would require him to confront his victims directly, face to face.

Guns let you do harm from a safe distance. The bullet does your dirty work for you. You need not look into your victim’s eyes; you need not see the pain, the fear, the anger.

Guns are not the only weapon that harm at a distance, of course. The English longbow did the same, during the Battle of Agincourt. The crossbow increased the longbow’s lethality.

Even Palestinian boys throwing rocks aim to hurt at a distance.

All modern war technologies distance us. Snipers pick off supposed enemies a kilometre away. Bombs and missiles fall out of a clear blue sky. Drones guided by operators twiddling joy-sticks in a darkened room blow up schools, hospitals and community centres visible only as coordinates on a screen.

In one of his science fiction novels, Orson Scott Card wrote about a planet where the inhabitants could not imagine weapons that killed at a distance. That didn’t stop them from developing medical technologies or even anti-gravity vehicles. It didn’t stop killing, crime, or violence. But it eliminated spears, arrows, bullets and bombs.

If you chose to harm someone in Card’s world, you had to do it person to person.

I’m a writer too. I suppose that makes words my weapons. And I cannot deny that words work at a distance. You read them in a different place and at a different time. I try not to say anything about someone that I would not say to that person’s face. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.

By some coincidence, the same day that newspapers headlined the shooting at the Raptor’s homecoming celebration, they also carried a story about a senator in Ottawa challenging the nastiness of some of his colleagues’ “aggressive, harassing, and in some cases bullying” tweets and emails.

Too often, we evaluate a technological development like electronic messaging as “good” or “bad.”

Good, perhaps, if it facilitates wider communication. I can discuss issues with correspondents in Africa or Australia, as if in person.

But bad, when those messages spread falsehood, misinformation, hatred and prejudice.

I suggest that perhaps we need a different rubric for evaluating good and bad. A technology itself may be neither; it may be both. The pipeline endorsed by Parliament this week fosters different views, because people see both benefits and risks.

Perhaps we should apply two criteria: “Does it do unnecessary harm?” and “Does it distance us from each other?”

Anonymous nasty emails obviously fail both tests. So do all modern weapons.

Industrial development has elements of both. Medical science may too. Government legislation generally intends to do good, or at least to reduce harm, but it imposes solutions at a distance that might be better worked out by local consensus.

Mining and burning the solar energy stored underground since the Carboniferous Period, 300 million years ago, has given us the highest standard of living that humans have ever known. Those same technological advances may also render human civilization extinct — along with thousands of species innocent of our industrial excesses.

Religions? Despite near-universal injunctions for love and respect, religions often erect more barriers than they remove.

I suggest that we should actively oppose anything that fails both the harm and distance tests.

And even when a new technology or process seems to offer great benefits, if it distances us from each other, we should treat it with caution.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

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