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Call It What You Want — The 'Incel Rebellion' Is Terrorism

Alek Minassian, pictured on his LinkedIn profile. MoreCloseclosemore
Alek Minassian, pictured on his LinkedIn profile.

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So Toronto is in mourning all because he couldn’t get a date?

Alek Minassian, accused of driving his van into a crowded sidewalk in Canada’s largest city last week, killing 10, posted a Facebook message minutes before the attack that suggested sexual frustration as his motive: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

Translation of a madman’s mind: “Incel” means “involuntary celibate,” referring to online misogynists who blame women for denying them sex. “Chads” and “Stacys” are incel terms for attractive men and women. And Elliot Rodger stabbed and shot six to death in 2014 in California before killing himself after writing a manifesto, the incels’ bible, describing his hatred of women and incomprehension at their refusing him sex.

Mass murder not being a sure-fire pickup strategy, Incels might make for a late-night punchline but for a big, chilling fact: Minassian used a method of murder popular with jihadists. Canadian police declined to call his attack terrorism, and if you deem that word to mean politically motivated violence, Minassian falls outside the definition. But a Brookings Institution analyst suggested that fretting over words is beside the point, to wit: "Violent subcultures on the web are no longer the province of jihadis alone."

It’s time to start treating such groups as terrorists, whatever we choose to call them.

Brookings’ Chris Meserole, who studies religious conflict and counterterrorism, noted the copycatting of vehicular homicide from jihadists. Its ugly provenance he wrote, dates to a 2010 article in al-Qaida’s online magazine suggesting pickup trucks as easily accessible, easily mastered lethal weapons.

Evil is infectious, and “the success of the tactic has not gone unnoticed by non-jihadi movements,” Meserole noted.

Four years later, an ISIS spokesman endorsed the tactic; two years after that, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a 19-ton truck into Bastille Day celebrants in Nice, France, killing 84. ISIS claimed responsibility, and lethal follow-up attacks terrorized Berlin, Barcelona and New York.

Evil is infectious, and “the success of the tactic has not gone unnoticed by non-jihadi movements,” Meserole noted. An ultra-right Islamophobe attacked mosque-goers in London last year with a van. Heather Heyer became perhaps the best-known American martyr by truck violence last summer, when the protester against white supremacy was run down by a driver at Charlottesville bigot-fest.

“Whatever we call Minassian’s violence,” Meserole concludes, “we will ultimately need to address the fact that the same kind of tactics and communities the Islamic State exploited have now produced the ‘incel rebellion’ too.”

He’s not alone in worrying about incels’ and others’ violent impulses. Last fall, Reddit, alerted to some members’ endorsement of rape, banned the group, whose rhetoric can be as hateful as its acts. (“I have sluts for managers,” one posted on another site, going on to use racial and vulgar language about their looks and alleged sex acts.)

A month earlier, Reddit had removed several Nazi-related and far-right forums — a related act, as incels’ misogyny brands them as charter members of the broader alt-right, their sexism the “gateway drug” to that movement’s racism, as one reporter covering the internet puts it. Many online misogynists explicitly push racist ideas, she says, the connection being that the haters tend to be young white men with a sense of entitlement on both scores, for their whiteness and masculinity.

Those incels who are non-violent and lonely certainly merit compassion. “It’s important to sympathize with the sexless, if not the sexless murderer,” Graeme Wood, author of a book on ISIS, writes in the Atlantic. “Like most things, sex is harder to appreciate when it’s available. In that way, for some, sexual fulfilment is a bit like nutritional fulfilment: A normal day of eating will keep you comfortable enough to think about other things, but fast for a day and your gut will soon become a permanent gnawing distraction.”

Still, many of us have had fallow periods in our romantic lives without mowing down innocents, and there are no easy answers to thwart those incels who alchemize loneliness into homicide. Reddit’s ban is porous, and the internet, with its power of self-radicalization, isn’t going away.

“Murder is easier when someone is whispering at you every few minutes, telling you the rest of the world deserves what it gets,” Wood writes. “These communities become, like ISIS, instruments of conscience-annihilation, and the lonely losers within them become desensitized and, ultimately, morally inverted. If there is a way to stop this process, I want to hear about it.”

Some suggest a cultural reset to purge misogyny and sex uncoupled from love, but that’s easier desired than done.

The best answer may be — with due respect to the Canadian investigators — treating non-political violence as terrorism. Some communities have created threat assessment teams, groups of police and mental health professionals who study possibly violent individuals based on tips from the public and monitoring of online posts. (Any privacy concerns are misplaced, as the law permits this.)

Threat assessment, therapy for violence-prone loners, and efforts like Reddit’s to take down hate forums are a start, but they aren’t going to catch every maniac with the deadly weapon of an internal combustion engine. Resilience is one hallmark of terrorism.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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