A lot of people know where to point the finger for Monday’s bloody mayhem in Toronto. “From my perspective, we have to have a conversation about misogyny, about the rise in hate and the connection to what some call the alt-right,” said Patty Hajdu, Justin Trudeau’s minister of employment.
On the surface, that claim looks easy to back up. There’s some evidence that the suspect, Alek Minassian, seems to have been targeting women. He seems to have lurked in a certain internet netherworld called “incel,” which consists of “involuntary celibates” who stoke each other’s grievances. He left a Facebook message celebrating the murderous exploits of a certain figure, Elliot Rodger, who slaughtered six people in California back in 2014 and left behind a manifesto explaining that he wanted revenge because girls wouldn’t have sex with him.
“Young men are being radicalized online,” warned Vicky Mochama, a writer for the Toronto Star, who drew a direct line between mass murder and violent misogyny.
But that’s too facile. Mass killers have been around for decades. And women are just one of their targets. Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec mosque killer, shopped around for months before he chose his particular brand of mayhem. He scouted shopping malls and feminist groups before deciding that the most spectacular statement he could make was to blow up a mosque while people were at prayer. Dylan Roof also targeted people at worship. In his case they were African-Americans. In 1989, Marc Lepine also went for women at L’École Polytechnique – long before anyone had heard of the internet, or the alt-right.
My point is that mass murderers carry around great big bags of grievances against all kinds of groups. It’s not hard to see why women are on the list. Women are moving ahead, and these men are not. More personally, these men are losers – socially awkward loners who feel the sting of female rejection.
Alek Minassian didn’t have to be radicalized online to discover that he was an outsider. In high school, he could barely communicate. “He would cower and avoid eye contact when he saw a girl,” an acquaintance told The New York Times.
Apart from social awkwardness, mass murderers have many other traits in common. They are almost all young, white and male. According to a composite portrait compiled by James Knoll, a U.S. forensic psychiatrist, they have often been isolated or bullied as children. Most of us would regard them not as terrifying, but as pathetic. They’re unsuccessful at school and on the job. Prof. Knoll says they are convinced that society has mistreated them. They are full of resentments, and they harbour powerful revenge fantasies. They often study other killers. They kill in public, during the daytime, and do not have a planned escape because they expect to be gunned down, or to kill themselves. They often leave a final message for the world. They want to prove they are real men, and they want everybody to know their name.
From what we know so far, Mr. Minassian’s alleged behaviour seems to fit the mould pretty well. But one important detail doesn’t fit. The killer didn’t use a gun. He used a van. That’s why so many people jumped to the premature conclusion that it must have been a terrorist attack. I am sure that many people were relieved (as I was) when that turned out to be wrong. A terrorist attack has far grimmer political, social and security implications than a random act of violence by a homicidal loser.
People will look for all the usual culprits here, I suppose – internet hate groups, inadequate mental health services, law enforcement groups that aren’t sufficiently attuned to the potentially murderous hostilities of disturbed young men – and call for reform. People will also cite our current favourite whipping boy, misogyny.
But the truth is that there’s not a lot we can do about any of these things. Countless men fit the profile of mass killers, without being ones. Many mass killers have had plenty of access to mental health services. Many are entirely below the radar of the law until they kill. Mr. Minassian received social services for years. Very few of the people who say hateful things in obscure internet groups will ever do anything hateful. In any case, no police force in the world could keep track of them all. As for murderous misogyny, girls and women in the West have never been safer than they are now.
The best way to minimize the casualties of mass murder is make guns hard to get. And we’ve done that. We can’t ban vans. That’s life.