by Jesse MacLean, M.A. Candidate in the Global Governance program at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario.
When someone kills several people and leaves behind a manifesto which states their actions are driven by a grievance against society, is it a political act of terrorism or an apolitical ‘tragedy’? The answer to this question may help determine how acts of violence like the May 23rd killings in Isla Vista are viewed by society and the authorities: as an exceptional crime, or as a terrorist attack driven by a form of extremist ideology as real as any white supremacist or other worldview.
One of the most challenging aspects of studying and discussing terrorism is that there is no universal agreement on a definition. Depending on the perspective and agenda of whoever applies the ‘terrorist’ label, a terrorist can be anything from a religious fanatic to a mentally unstable bomber, an invading soldier or a ‘freedom fighter.’
The category of ‘lone wolf terrorism’ blurs these lines further. In a ‘lone wolf’ attack, a single person acts separately from any militant organization as they strive to achieve political goals through public acts of mass violence. This violence is often though not always directed against civilian targets. Commonly-given examples of ‘lone wolves’ include the July 2011 bomb and gun attacks in Norway where 77 people were killed by a right-wing extremist, as well as the ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski, who spent decades sending mail bombs in the name of combating modern technology. Such attackers often make explicit political statements backed by violence. However, they may also be suffering from mental health challenges or be driven by personal interests. Because of this, it can be difficult to determine where a political cause ends and where a medical need for therapy and treatment begins.
Distinguishing between political actors attempting to advance an agenda and apolitical spree killers is crucial for determining whether the ‘terrorist’ label applies to a particular act of violence. This determination is important, as it is generally accepted that a terrorist threatens society in a way that a bank robber does not. Unlike a materially-motivated criminal, the terrorist directs indiscriminate violence against civilians in service to ideals which are often incompatible with the basic values of a free and just society.
If all this is accepted, what does it mean for the crime perpetrated in Isla Vista on May 23? Elliot Rodgers killed six people and himself, leaving behind statements indicating his actions were driven by a form of extremist misogyny that viewed his sexual frustration as a legitimate reason to kill. While the perpetrator was clearly grappling with mental health challenges, it is difficult to read his statements about a ‘War on Women’ which included fantasies about exterminating women in concentration camps without perceiving an ideological tinge to this violence. According to an editorial published earlier this month in the Globe and Mail, this was indeed a terrorist act, little different from any other political extremist lashing out at a group blamed for the perpetrator’s perceived oppression.
The Criminal Code of Canada defines terrorism as a criminal act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public “…with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.” If one recognizes Rodgers’ worldview as an ideology and also accepts that the Isla Vista shootings were for the purpose of ‘compelling a person’ (i.e., women) to ‘do or to refrain from doing any act’ (in this case, sexually gratifying the perpetrator), then the Globe’s argument that his actions constituted terrorism is supportable according to the laws of Canada. The key question is whether online hatred against women can be considered an ‘ideology’ for the purposes of the terrorist label.
Violence in service to extreme aspirations such as a resurrected Nazi regime or jihadist theocracy is commonly accepted as political violence, as ‘terrorism.’ If these agendas can be accepted as ‘legitimate’ ideologies, than perhaps so can terrorism in service to ‘extremist misogyny.’ The Isla Vista killings are not the first time someone has publicly lashed out against women, and unfortunately they are unlikely to be the last. Every year Canadians remember the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre, commemorating the murder of fourteen women by a man whose suicide note explicitly stated his crime was a political act in opposition to feminism. The perpetrator of a 2009 murder-suicide in Pennsylvania also targeted women, killing three of them at a fitness club. His statements, like those of Elliot Rodgers, revolved around sexual frustration and hatred of women.
This ideology may not have standing terrorist organizations fighting for it – there is no misogynist equivalent to Al-Qaeda – but there is a community with its own propaganda and worldview. Online forums dedicated to ‘pick-up artists’ (PUAs) and ‘men’s rights activism’ (MRAs) propagate the view of women as prizes to be won or an enemy to be combated. The most extreme speech seen in these communities can be violent and degrading to the point of qualifying as ‘hate speech.’ Elliot Rodgers was a participant in such communities and adopted their terminology in his manifesto, such as identifying as an ‘incel’ (involuntarily celibate) man. When the jargon and beliefs of this worldview are repeated by those who kill in its name, then it is inevitable that people will ask what role it plays in ‘radicalizing’ some of its adherents toward violence.
Crimes like the Isla Vista shootings are invariably described as aberrant tragedies stemming from disturbed minds. Familiar arguments are always raised, revolving around gun control or media sensationalism. Yet if one accepts the legal definition of terrorism as violent crimes carried out in service to an ideology, then perhaps it is time to view such acts of extremist misogyny as political acts of ‘lone wolf terrorists.’