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How to Fight Alt-Right Terrorism

What the Toronto Killer's online misogyny reveals about the threat from the alt-right.
A vigil in Toronto, Canada after a deadly street van attack by suspect 25-year-old Alek Minassian

Just a few minutes before a 25-year-old man drove a van through a crowd last week in Toronto, Ontario, killing 10 and wounding 15, he posted a mini-manifesto to his Facebook account. The post praised Elliot Rodger, the misogynist murderer in the 2014 Isla Vista killing spree, and said that an "incel revolution" was beginning. This latest mass murder was perpetrated by a self-declared member of an international radical group of violent ideologues. By committing murder, he sought not just to harm others but also to sow fear and spread his ideology, ideally sparking others to take similar actions. If he's not a terrorist, no one is.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about all the murders and attempted murders committed by men who pledge themselves to various strains of right-wing ideologies, including the Parkland shootings and the recent bombings in Austin, Texas. Each case got treated by the media, law enforcement, and certainly by the president, as a lone wolf attack that could be blamed on mental illness or other forms of disability. Instead, I argued, the lone wolves have clearly become a pack. Some, like the Toronto killer, fixated on harming women. For others, like the Austin bomber, the target was black people. Neo-Nazis are murdering Jews. The patterns of radicalization are consistent. So too is the lack of response from our leaders. Unless we embrace systemic de-radicalization across society, I fear the murders will continue.

Incel is just one of many epithets among groups making up the matrix of right-wing terrorism. The word is Internet slang for "involuntarily celibate." On Web fora like 4chan, groups of self-identified incels blame women for denying them sex, which they feel they are owed, stoking a sense of false grievance into violent fantasies of retribution. Incels take part in misogynist online communities that, as Aja Romano wrote back in 2016, can function as a "gateway" for men to enter the alt-right. Romano argues that expressing sexism is often the first step, but that racism and other forms of bigotry soon follow. Most people don't act on their ideas, but enough of them do that we should take them taken seriously as a threat.

The murders in Toronto weren't the only act of terrorist violence in North America last week. In Tennessee, a white man associated with the sovereign citizen movement shot four black people in a Nashville-area Waffle House, using an AR-15 belonging to his father. Sovereign citizens adopt a right-wing ideology that rejects all government authority. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines sovereign citizens as a movement of people who "do not recognize the authority of police and other law enforcement officers, often displaying fake driver's licenses and license plates to police officers during traffic stops, occasionally ending in deadly shootouts." The Nashville killer had a convoluted history of clashes with law enforcement, including an episode when he breached the security barrier at the White House. His guns were confiscated at the time, but police later returned the weapons to his father, including the weapon that he used to commit murder.

Meanwhile, in a small town in Georgia, a very small group of Neo-Nazis gathered and marched on April 22nd. Their numbers swelled as night fell and they gathered in a field to burn a Swastika and a Nordic rune. Then they went to the bar. To be clear, these Nazis have a constitutional right to assemble and even to burn wooden images (as long as they observe proper fire safety). What's less clear is how best to respond to acts of mass murder in the context of newly emboldened and accelerating forms of hate.

The Toronto killer's invocation of Elliot Rodger stuck out in part because, as I wrote in March, the SPLC identifies Rodger as the first alt-right terrorist. He's far from the first man to act out fantasies of violence against women, as feminist author Jessica Valenti notes in the New York Times. What's changed is the speed with which the most radical elements in North American misogyny move from actor to actor. It's easier now for someone with misogynist leanings to be affirmed in his beliefs and to find communities of hate. Worse, the SPLC argues, similar patterns are taking place among anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-Islamic, anti-government, and other radical right-wing ideological subsets.

What do we do? Short-term solutions to this violence include requiring law enforcement to take right-wing ideologies seriously. Further, men who harass and stalk women need to be considered potentially violent; there's no way the Waffle House killer should have had access to firearms. We need to continue efforts to disarm domestic abusers. Alas, whenever we empower the police to surveil and confiscate, they tend to use that power disproportionately against marginalized people—not white domestic abusers.

So while we do need law enforcement to try and stop the next terrorist act, long-term, it's well past time to think structurally. Our political, spiritual, educational, and intellectual leaders should find ways to work against violent right-wing ideologies, including violent misogyny and the proliferation of assault rifles in private hands. Law enforcement can play a role, but any real process of de-radicalization must be cultural rather than carceral.