The Toronto attacker wrote that he hated women. Does that make it terrorism?

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Science Photo Library/Getty Images, Carlo Allegri/Reuters, Nathan Denette/Canadian Press via AP, AP
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Science Photo Library/Getty Images, Carlo Allegri/Reuters, Nathan Denette/Canadian Press via AP, AP

And now it seems we can add “incel” to the list of triggers for mass murder, along with religion, race and a losing streak at the casino.

Shorthand for “involuntarily celibate,” it is apparently a rallying cry among men who gather in crevices of the internet and blame women — the entirety of the gender — for their inability to have normal relationships with the opposite sex.

Alek Minassian, the 25-year-old van driver who killed 10 and wounded 14 more when he plowed through a crowded Toronto sidewalk on Tuesday, appears to have posted a message on his (now disabled) Facebook account minutes before the attack, which read: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!” (“Chad” and “Stacy” are reportedly slang for sexually active men and women who are the objects of jealousy and resentment among the involuntarily celibate.)

Facts often change in high-profile investigations, but should hatred of women turn out to be the killer’s motive, it raises more than a few questions in these times of heightened tension: Is it a hate crime to target women? Is it terrorism if the motive is sexual rather than political? Do any of these semantics matter?

Steve Wessler, who developed the civil rights unit for the Maine attorney general’s office in 1992, responsible for enforcing the hate crime statutes of the time, and who went on to create the Center for Preventing Hate, says that technically it is a hate crime to target a victim based on gender, in Canada and in most U.S. states. He recalls prosecuting several such cases, most memorably against a “serial abuser who … would use degrading gender-based language. So in that way it’s no different than attacking a Muslim man and yelling anti-Muslim slurs.”

On the other hand, he says, hate crime charges on the basis of gender are probably less frequently brought because women are not a minority group. “There are people who think it is hard to make the case and don’t even try,” he said.

Yonge Street in Toronto
Yonge Street in Toronto, the day after a man drove a van striking and killing numerous pedestrians in his path. (Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press via AP)

A spike in misogynistic talk, particularly online, however, led the Southern Poverty Law Center this year to add “male supremacy” to the list of hateful ideologies it tracks. One of the newest forms of male supremacism, the center says, is “incel.” And the primary trigger for adding it to the list was Elliot Rodger, who Minassian mentioned in his pre-rampage Facebook post, and who the SPLC calls “the most chilling example of the most violent ends of this nihilistic, spiteful and self-centered ideology.” Before killing six and wounding 14 in a mass shooting in California, Rodger wrote a manifesto which blamed women for the fact that he was a virgin. “I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentlemen,” he wrote.

Similarly, while this rampage fits the technical definition of terrorism — designed to inflict terror to further a worldview — it feels like a challenge to the long-accepted ways that word is used. Usually terrorism describes acts that are political or religious in origin, not violence by a random collection of strangers who come together on the internet to share their feelings of rejection and their entitlement to revenge.

“Incel is not something we usually talk about when it comes to terrorist attacks,” says Daniel Antonius, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo who studies the roots of terrorism, violence and aggression. “I admit it is new to me too. I had never heard of it. Calling it terrorism, then is an important pronouncement that it is a threat and we need to pay attention.”

To call this terrorism, he argues, is to take the event out of the realm of the random — one mentally disturbed individual acting in a bizarre way — and bring it into that of the purposeful. And as a society, the purposeful makes us feel far more threatened. “That feeling that someone is out to get you, maybe not you personally but you as part of a group you represent, that is terror,” he says.

Accepting misogyny as terrorism also serves as an important if unsettling reminder of the very modern ability of hate to spread. In the past, a man who could not get a date would nurse his anger quietly. He might take out his feelings on the woman who rejected him. He might even grow to hate women in general. But there was no venue in which to encounter a large number of other men who felt the same way, spiraling his anger into a cause. “Now you have all these lone wolves who can find each other” with a few keystrokes, Antonius says, and in fact there are “incel” boards on Reddit and 4chan. “You could never instill fear or spread hatred as quickly as you can today. That’s a pretty potent weapon.”

The argument can be made, then, that calling this a hate crime, calling this terrorism, is also a potent weapon — a statement that this act is larger than a one-time fluke, and a threat to be taken seriously. On the other hand, though, such threats have become so ubiquitous in this connected age that perhaps this labeling is a distinction without a difference, a splitting of hairs, a semantic game.

Bullet holes where a mass shooting took place near the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus
Bullet holes where a mass shooting took place near the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus, May 24, 2014. (Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

As CBC News columnist Robyn Urback wrote early this morning: “I can’t help but feel very tired thinking about the weeks we’ll spend debating whether … the man… is mentally ill, or a radicalized misogynist, or a terrorist — or some combination thereof.”

None of those, she wrote, will bring back the dead, or, more importantly, stop the next aggrieved person. “After the van attack, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked what we can do to prevent similar tragedies,” she wrote. “While he gave a vague response about adjusting to changing realities, the real answer, if we’re being totally honest with ourselves, is — not much.”


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