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Spinach and Media—Deadly?

Last week saw the unfolding of two apparently unrelated tragedies. First we learned of toxic spinach that had been tainted by E. coli. It appears that somewhere, somehow, the animal fertilizer used to help spinach grow had come in contact with the leaves and made its way into the product’s packaging.

“When it comes to mental food, there are no quality control inspectors.”

A few days later, in my country, a crazed young man went into a college in Montreal and began firing from his collection of semi-automatic weapons and a .45-calibre handgun. Young people, optimistically entering the college at the start of a new academic year, with hopes and dreams of success and potential in their minds, were suddenly scurrying for cover from the gunfire. One 18-year-old wasn't able to move fast enough, and tragically Anastasia De Sousa lost her life.

When students returned to the college a few days later, many of the 19 other wounded came in wheelchairs and on crutches. Seven more are still in hospital, two of them in critical condition.

In the United States, the fatality toll from spinach remains at possibly two. The death of a 77-year-old Wisconsin woman has been linked to the spinach, while the passing of a 23-month-old girl is still being investigated. In addition, reports indicate that as of September 18, 2006, at least 109 people are ill as a result of the E. coli contamination.

So why are we looking at school shootings and spinach? Because these two developments clearly indicate how differently society has responded to these unfortunate incidents.

For those of you who love spinach as much as I do, it has been a bit of a sacrifice finding the shelves devoid of the tasty leaves. I usually buy small bags that contain a half-pound (227 grams for us Canucks) of the produce.

Reports state that at least 500 million pounds of the product were pulled from shelves and destroyed as a result of the contamination issue. Put into half-pound bags, that equals one billion bags of spinach. Is that an overreaction to two possible deaths and 109 cases of illness? I don't think so. Although it's a shame we can't track the contamination more accurately, who wants to risk additional lives? At the same time, questions are being asked about how we grow produce and whether techniques need to change in order to prevent further outbreaks.

Meanwhile, back in Montreal, similar questions are being asked, but the actual actions being taken are very different.

I won't get into the politics of gun control (although I can't help myself from suggesting Michael Moore's Pollyanna vision of Canada portrayed in Bowling for Columbine may be a little faded). Yet there were other contributing factors in the shooter's life that are far too common.

In a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), gunman Kimveer Gill is reported as having an "obsession" with firearms. But he was also crazed about a few other things: Violent videogames, violent music, violent television and he was a frequent visitor to a goth-focused website.

It is on that website where the media have learned much about Gill's loves and hates. "Life is like a video game, you gotta die sometime," says Gill in his online blog. Lamenting, "work sucks... school sucks... life sucks...," it doesn't seem to require a boatload of education to determine these elements mixed together to form the fertilizer that gave this young man the impetus to make the decisions he did.

Now that the bullets are fired and the blood has been spilled, are we rushing to pull potentially dangerous contributing items from store shelves? Are we loading up millions of packages of videogames and CDs laced with violent lyrics into dumpsters to be destroyed? Will websites that contribute to this behavior be shut down?

Of course, we know these things won't happen, and the reason why is clearly evident: We live in a democracy, and our main tenant of freedom is the ability to say what's on our mind, without fears of having others censor our thoughts and statements. Yet these rights are constantly being distorted in order to protect some of the most unscrupulous members of our society.

The other difficulty is the impossible task of pinning down which of these media ingredients were responsible for influencing Gill, and to what degree. (And it would be incorrect to not take his home life and many other sociological factors into account.) But is this reason enough to consider these sources of never ending violence benign? The usual media suspects -- violent video games, music, television, movies and Internet sites -- are all too often discovered as being a frequent pastime for those who gravitate toward violent behavior.

The owner of Gill's favorite website is a prime example of how these media contributors react. Quick to hide under the cloak of free speech, he is quoted by the CBC saying, "Any time somebody does something wrong that happens to have a profile on the website [meaning a person who is a member of the site], somehow the website is blamed. I don't think the website is in any way responsible."

Of course he doesn't. He was merely only one source of manure that helped to fertilize Kimveer Gill's deviant behavior.

In light of the recent produce panic, parents will likely be far more diligent in washing the leaves of vegetables they serve to their families. Let's not forget that when it comes to mental food, there are no quality control inspectors, and mothers and fathers will need to work with their kids to make sure the media coming into their homes is as free as possible from deadly contaminants.

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