Radical. Misogynistic. Terruh.
We call any disaffected Muslim with a gun or a van or a bomb threat a terrorist but we don’t do the same when the mass murderer is a white guy. It’s heartening that we seem to have noticed the hypocrisy in larger numbers than in years past, but it’s still a massive double standard.
The last time we had that conversation in earnest was when a man mowed down scores at a country music concert. At the time, I argued that, though there is a certain injustice to deciding to initiate restraint when the perpetrator was a white man, we should be trying to narrow the pantheon of crimes we consider terrorism rather than broaden it. We should try to see lone wolf Muslim men in western countries who never visit the Middle East and pledge allegiance to ISIS on their Facebook pages as an analog to angry white kids who pull guns in their school and fawn over Eric Harris on their Twitter account rather than trying the reverse. Both remind me less of international terrorists than of angry, hopeless, people who want to kill and, in an effort to lend their nihilism some significance, tie it to any broader cultural force they can.
Even still, the Las Vegas shooter wasn’t terrorism in any traditional sense. Terror is a qualitative, not a quantitative concept. One person shot on camera in service of a political ideology is terrorism even while dozens mowed down in a heinous fit of rage is not. One is not, necessarily, worse than the other, but they are different. This past week in Toronto, however, the conversation got much more difficult.
A man rented a vehicle and crashed it into a crowd killing eight and wounding more. The perpetrator had ties to radical ideologies with violent inclinations and the US President responded with a stern call for the Department of Homeland Security to be vigilant, vowed to protect the American people, and railed against “political correctness.”
But that was not this past week in Toronto. It was on November 6, 2017 when an Uzbek man who had pledged allegiance to ISIS committed an act of violence in New York City.
This past week in Toronto a young white man who was deeply involved with a radically misogynistic online subculture and idolized others who had been inspired by its ideology to kill drove a van into a crowd in Toronto killing 10 and injuring 16. The US president offered none of the vows to protect America or revisit our policy with respect ot immigration of white men from Canada.
The parallels between the incident in Toronto and other similar attacks make the double standard impossible to ignore, but regardless of our definition of terrorism, there is a more toxic double standard that runs deeper in our political conversations.
In a podcast I listen to from time to time, Vox correspondent Zach Beauchamp summarized the following conversation with a Canadian terrorism expert (I should be clear that he is expressing the opinion of another and that he and his co-hosts were utterly unsympathetic to the view expressed here). Beauchamp stated of his source:
“Her suggestion is that you look not to arresting people who are posting on these forums but to try and address the root cause which is the sense of loneliness and alienation that these men experience. Many of these men suffer from extreme social anxiety and depression and you start there, with social outreach programs.”
One need not embrace an expansive authoritarian vision of what constitutes terrorism to think that something is backwards here.
The online community of which the Toronto killer was a part serves, at its very best and with the benefit of every doubt, as a support group wherein frustrated men stoke each others’ self-serving and misogynistic notions of victimization. At its worst (which appears to be the more frequent manifestation) it is a radically misogynistic if diffuse social movement that glorifies and encourages violence and lauds its perpetrators.
I am less disturbed by our reticence to call white men terrorists (though the parallel glee with which we label brown men terrorists is pretty disturbing) than I am by our unwillingness to confront the cause of their violence. I tend toward nuance in these things, but we leap at the chance to hold a billion Muslims accountable for the radicalism in their midst even when they have as little to do with the ideology as I do with fringe online misogyny. But I’m never asked to answer for the misogyny on corners of the internet that I avoid visiting, even when it spills over into horrific violence. Why would I be when we can’t even ask the very community that stokes and trumpets such toxic resentment to be responsible for its own?
The root cause of this radical misogyny is “loneliness and alienation?” Give me a fucking break.
Are these men lonely, in part, because they are misogynistic or are they misogynistic, in part, because they are lonely? Probably a healthy dose of both, but my guess is that it’s much more of the former. More to the point, is gleefully idolizing mass murderers an acceptable outlet for "loneliness and alienation?" Is the root cause of violence and rank bigotry the loneliness that these men feel or the fact that finding solace in a community that glorifies watered-down social darwinism, misogyny, and violence in the name of both is just as easy as buying black nail polish and t-shirts with anti-social messages on them? Millions of teenagers and young people rebel by seeking comfort in insular groups that are bound together by interests as harmless and disparate as clothing, video games, comics, or music. I have no patience for anyone who suggests that the community in question suffers generally for lack of choices.
That “extreme social anxiety and depression” are so common in this country and other modern democracies is a tragedy and should be addressed, but their very ubiquity gives lie to the idea that we should consider them a root cause of the sort of violence exemplified in Toronto. Millions of people in disparate circumstances deal with alienation and mental illness without turning to virulent bigotry, much less the sort that explicitly encourages and glorifies violence.
I don’t frankly care what we call terrorism. I’ll continue to warn that we should tighten the definition, but a definition of terrorism that is so watered down as to be useless seems to be what everyone wants. What I do care about is our insistence that sadness or anger over loss of status mitigates our tendency to lash out against others and that our sympathy seems much more pronounced when white men are those doing the lashing.
Let’s take a moment consider that the root cause of radical misogyny that spills over into violence and that deifies its perpetrators might actually be a society that thinks so little of misogyny that it can dismiss it in casual fashion and treat it as harmless right up until (and often beyond) the point that people die.
We need to stop that shit.