The murderous attacks committed by a young man in Isla Vista, Calif., 10 days ago, has provoked a heated cultural debate that has overshadowed the tragedy of the loss of six innocent young lives. Was the killer, Elliot Rodger, a deranged loner whose mental illness was to blame for his depraved act, or was he the product of a world where women are murdered to restore male honour? To some degree, a person’s stand on this issue depends on their gender: Women see in Mr. Rodger’s misogynistic rampage the underlying threat they feel when confronted by men they don’t know, or know too well; men are quick to respond with the rather obvious point that not all males think women are born to serve their needs or deserve to die when they fail to do so. It’s a complicated discussion, but there is a simpler way to think about this: Elliot Rodger was a terrorist.
At least one writer has made the intriguing argument that Mr. Rodger behaved like a religious or political terrorist. He had an extreme ideology expressed vividly in a manifesto. He was marginalized and felt he had been dealt an unfair hand. He was defiantly willing to die for his cause. And he identified a specific group as the source of his oppression, a group he felt deserved to be punished randomly as a whole for the perceived outrages of a few. As Laurie Penny put it in The New Statesman, the Isla Vista killings were a case of “misogynistic extremism.”
It’s a startling way to look at it, but it clarifies where society needs to focus its attention and puts an end to the male/female infighting over root causes. We know well, in the age of terrorism, that extremist groups recruit disaffected young people, mostly male, into their ranks and send them out to target innocent victims. We don’t concern ourselves with the mental well-being of terrorists. And we don’t blame each other when an attack occurs.
The Montreal massacre was an even starker example of misogynistic extremism. Marc Lépine went into classrooms at École Polytechnique, ordered the men to leave and murdered the women left behind. Randomly selected students went to class that day as innocent young women but died as “feminists,” the group Mr. Lépine railed against as the source of his inability to advance in life.
There was no terrorist organization that actively recruited Mr. Lépine or Mr. Rodger, but we can’t ignore that there is an extremely violent misogynist subculture on the Internet that encourages the worst kind of thinking. Nor can we ignore that women are still treated like chattels in far too many parts of the world. But what we also should not do is let random acts of terror tear us apart. Men and women should listen to each other, honour the victims, and remember that we have a common enemy.