17 August 2021

Why describing all mass violence as ‘terror’ is a dangerous error

By Sam Ashworth-Hayes

The coverage of the Plymouth mass shooting is increasingly focused on the risk posed by ‘incels’ – involuntary celibates, men who are unable to find a romantic partner. Various organisations and outlets have called for treating ‘incel’ forums as terrorist activities, mused on the terror threat incels pose to Britain, or, in the case of the local police units, decided to look closely at whether to recategorise the violence as terrorism.

It is not entirely surprising that police forces are eagerly advancing this line of argument; discussing the insidious threat of incel terrorism moves the conversation away from their decision to give the murderer back his shotgun licence, despite his mental state and a previous allegation of assault. This does not mean that those more detached from the operational decision-making that enabled the shooting should go along with it.

Part of the problem is that we have cast ‘terrorism’ as a primarily moral term. When the word is used as a source of moral charge rather than a descriptor of motive and purpose, we lose the ability to usefully discuss the different circumstances and practical implications underlying different events. A word is useful when it helps you to understand why something happened, and what you can do to prevent it recurring. When through political pressure it is applied across entirely different psychologies and aims, the resulting conceptual models can lead to wildly inappropriate conclusions.

Perhaps most importantly, lone wolf terrorists and mass shooters differ significantly in their pre- and post-attack behaviours. Lone wolves are more likely to try to recruit others, to talk to a wider network both virtually and in-person, and to make grandiose public statements. They’re more likely to engage in dry runs, stockpile weapons, and plan in advance, choosing targets in-line with political motives and the security climate. And because they try to involve others, information leaks out. They’re easier to detect ahead of time.

Mass shooters, on the other hand, don’t choose their targets in the same way, or plan things out in advance. They often tell very few people about what they explicitly plan to do. They target places and people that are known to them, or act almost at random, with their decision based less in cold forethought and more in an eventual breakdown as short-term risk factors pile up: “a mixture of unfortunate personal life circumstances coupled with an intensification of beliefs/grievances”. Compared to their terrorist counterparts, they are more likely to be depressive and to have relationship issues.

Viewing the two sources of violence as interchangeable is a category error; the differences between them are meaningful and relevant in formulating policy. ‘Terrorism’ is a description of motivation and behaviour, and violence is no more moral for being rooted in nihilism or sadism than for being motivated by religious faith or political ideology.

Discussion of this point has been complicated by high-profile acts committed by members of specific groups, creating a political urge to apply it to other cases in order to lessen the association between the two. While the motive may be good, it is still a mistake to conflate the understanding that different mental frames give different views on reality, and therefore different political solutions, with the idea that the world underlying the map no longer matters. What can be fruitful is recognising that alongside differences, there are similarities between the perpetrators of both acts.

People who engage in mass violence of any sort are not generally life’s winners. They may be mentally ill and are likely to be living in unfortunate circumstances. Reading the accounts of the foreign fighters who joined Isis feels a little like reading the complaints of a mass shooter; they felt disempowered and emasculated; they were unemployed and unmarried; they were humiliated by not earning the living they thought they ought to. As one would-be suicide bomber said, “I wanted to improve my living condition [for] marriage. I wanted us to have a house and for me to get married, and to have money.”

Young and unmarried men have notoriously proved a cause of social unrest throughout history. Even allowing for group selection, they are more prone to criminality, violence, and substance abuse. It should not be surprising that they form both a primary source of recruits for terrorist organisations, and a destabilising social influence.

Pointing out that violent men are motivated in large part by grievance can be met with a slightly defensive response, as though anyone doing so is blaming women for refusing to be with unappealing men rather than the men for carrying out the violence. But it can be simultaneously true that no one is owed a relationship with anyone else, and that romantic isolation is embittering.

We find this conversation deeply awkward because we are caught between social orderings which view love, affection, and sexual contact as utterly central to our lives, and the reality that some people are excluded from this, whether through bad luck or their own character.

In this context, it is not exactly surprising that when a problem like the incels arises, without easy solutions, the response is almost to wish them away. Ban the forums, criminalise the literature, and just maybe they will dissipate. There is something to the idea that the internet almost uniquely enables the spread of deeply unhealthy mental frames. People who interact offline are naturally limited in their exposure to unusual mental models of the world by the sheer improbability of encountering someone who holds them, but mass connectivity allows people to seek out validation for their ideas and form communities around them.

But as experience with Islamism shows us, the day after any such legislation there will still be deeply bitter and warped men, there will still be encrypted messaging, and there will still be mass coverage of the next man who buys a gun and turns it on people he holds to be happier than himself.

The problem is that it’s hard to put down policy solutions that might actually work. Labelling incels as terrorists will not reduce the probability of another shooting. More assiduous mental health interventions, and awareness of how potentially violent people behave, might help.

A longer term approach might be to recognise that giving people who feel they have no chance in life a stake in society is probably an effective way of mitigating the risk of violence. As the researcher Lyman Stone has noted, the incel mythology around sexlessness is largely incorrect. What is true is that there is a rise in the number of men who are unmarried and sexually inactive, and that this is driven by a decline in marriage and worsening economic conditions.

Reducing the dissatisfaction felt by the economically unsuccessful may therefore be one of the more effective ways of reducing people’s risk of radicalisation, whether in the form of looking to overthrow the state for the imposition of a new ideology, or violence motivated by grievance.

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is a journalist and economist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.