Argument

Canada May Host the World’s First Incel Show Trial

There’s plenty of reason to doubt a misogynist murderer deserves to be prosecuted as a terrorist.

A stuffed doll of Pepe the Frog sits at the main entrance of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Hong Kong on Nov. 23, 2019.
A stuffed doll of Pepe the Frog sits at the main entrance of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Hong Kong on Nov. 23, 2019. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

A young man who hates women and can’t get laid goes to an erotic massage parlor in search of sexual relief. He turns violent and stabs a female masseuse to death with a machete, injuring her co-worker in the process. Is this act of murderous violence terrorism?

This isn’t just an academic question: On May 19, the Toronto Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police held a news conference announcing that a 17-year-old who is alleged to have fatally stabbed a woman and injured another in a Toronto massage parlor in February is to be charged with terrorism. It is the first time that terrorism charges have been brought in a case connected to the so-called “incel” ideology.

In theory, treating violent incels as potential terrorists might be reasonable. In practice, there’s plenty of reason to think this particular incel murderer isn’t a terrorist—and the government’s own motives in treating him as one may be less salutary than it admits.

Incel” refers to “involuntarily celibate.” For incels, just as for the radical feminists they loathe, the personal is the political. And the personal is a pandemonium of misery, self-hatred, and shame: Incels have come to believe that they are systematically deprived of sex. This deficit is experienced not just as a deep psychological wound but as an all-embracing political status in a wider ideological worldview that rationalizes their deficit and excuses or even justifies violent retaliation against those who are perceived to be responsible for it. (Conveniently, incels blame coveted women—“Stacys”—and sexually successful men—“Chads”—for their miseries.)

What is the political cause or content of inceldom? What is it that incels want? To enshrine a law that creates a reserve army of sex slaves for all men who can’t get laid? To impose higher taxes on men and women who are sexually active? To grant incels free access to sex workers?

No doubt incels are themselves divided on the finer points, but their vision of the world, however infantile and fantastical, has a political character, if not a clear and coherent political agenda. It is to do with justice and (perceived) rights and wrongs.

The Canadian authorities have disclosed little about the case involving the 17-year-old (who, as a minor, cannot be named under Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act). He is alleged to have killed Ashley Noell Arzaga with a machete, in addition to injuring the owner of the parlor as she tried to subdue him. Police initially charged the minor with first-degree and attempted murder, but, based on police evidence that he is linked to the incel subculture, the authorities have now upgraded those charges to include “terrorist activity.”

We don’t yet know the nature of the suspect’s link to the incel movement. Was he an active member, or was he on the periphery? Did he advocate for murderous violence in his online communications? And did he, like other notable right-wing terrorists before him, announce and justify his murder mission before carrying it out in the form of a manifesto? Time will tell.

If he had indeed written just such a manifesto, then the case for upgrading his murder charge to one of terrorism would be an unassailable one: Terrorism is violence against civilians for political purposes. It doesn’t matter how stupid or cruel the political goals are (a utopia cleansed of infidels or a utopia cleansed of Stacys and Chads). It doesn’t matter how durably effective the violence is. (Most terrorism isn’t.) It just matters that violence is used against civilians in service to a political or ideological worldview.

But what if the minor in the Toronto case had written no manifesto or announced no impending atrocity to inspire and thrill his fellow incels and draw publicity to their cause? What if he was just a disgruntled loner who happened to “shitpost” his bile against women on an incel forum? It is eminently possible for incels to murder women (or anyone else for that matter) for reasons that are wholly unrelated to the incel ideology.

And why choose a massage parlor to stage a politically motivated attack against women? You would think that such places offer incels a lifeline: a temporary relief from the oppressiveness of a sex-depleted life. So what would be the political capital in killing sex workers in their place of work? Perhaps incels resent these women because they see them as profiteers from their sexual miseries. As one incel tersely put it in an online forum, “paying for sex is cucked [cuckolded].”

Or perhaps there are more personal motives at work, motives to do with sexual shame: Incels are not just aggrieved that they can’t have sex; they’re also ashamed by this failure and correspondingly resent all those who effortlessly can or do have sex. It isn’t difficult to imagine the shame a 17-year-old might feel in a darkened room receiving impersonal sex from a stranger hired for pay. All the miseries of their sexual deprivation, desperation, and abject dependency on women would be vividly crystalized in that moment. One self-described “escortcel” (an incel who hires sex workers) confessed in an online post how he had become disgusted with those he paid for sex: “[I]t doesn’t make sense for an incel who’s a subhuman ugly fuck to go after a girl who would otherwise never even lay eyes on you if she saw you in the street.” More likely this incel was disgusted at himself but projected that emotion outward at the source of his shame.

There is a wider political context that must be considered, too: The authorities in Canada have never before laid terrorism charges against a non-Muslim. Or to put it another way: It is the first time in Canadian prosecutorial history that a person who isn’t a jihadi has been charged under terrorism offenses. For the authorities in Canada, this isn’t a good look: It makes them vulnerable to the charge that they’re selectively targeting Muslims and sleeping on other potential threats from the far-right and the incel subculture.

The Canadian authorities are also acutely alive to the criticism that they blundered for their mishandling of the Alek Minassian case. In 2018, Minassian, a self-described incel, rammed his truck into a crowd of pedestrians on a sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10. Just before carrying out the attack, he wrote a post on Facebook in which he proclaimed the arrival of an “incel rebellion.” “I was thinking that I would inspire future masses to join me in my uprising,” he told his interrogators.

Seen in this context, the laying of terrorism charges by Canadian authorities is a form of symbolic work: They are signaling that they are not selectively targeting Muslims and that they have learned the appropriate lessons from the Minassian case and take misogynist violence very seriously indeed.

This sort of rhetorical messaging may yet backfire, especially if it turns out that the 17-year-old in question murdered for primarily personal rather than political reasons. As the terrorism expert Phil Gurski has pointed out, the standards for prosecuting a terrorism charge are much stricter than those for prosecuting a murder charge. The prosecution had better have the requisite evidence of political intent.

Moreover, by publicly announcing the charges, the authorities have just given the incel movement a tremendous coup, giving it a coherence, relevance, and menace way beyond what this fringe subculture can realistically claim to possess. Incels themselves are not insensitive to this implication. As one sarcastically commented, “Yeah I’m isis bro yeah yeah yeah I’m isis sure bro yep.” Or, as another acidly put it, referring to the “mainstream media”: “They really think we’ve got a clergy or something where we plot mass destruction.”

This is not an argument for not prosecuting terrorism when it is terrorism, but we should be on guard against the temptation to hunt for political motives in acts of public violence when it is politically expedient to do so. Terrorism is a tactic, not a signifier of all that we loathe, still less a conduit for signaling our virtuous fidelity to righteous causes.

Simon Cottee is senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent. He is the author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.

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