Was Jake Davison’s rampage in Plymouth really, as one article described it, “Britain’s first ‘incel’ mass shooting”? This isn’t an academic question: while Devon and Cornwall Police initially ruled out terrorism as a motive, it has recently signalled that it may revise this, as more details emerge about the killer’s links to the incel subculture.
The case for classifying the Plymouth atrocity as terrorism seems to rest on Davison’s hatred of women and his interest in, and online commentary about, “incels”. It’s certainly not based on a manifesto explaining the political point of his actions: he didn’t leave one. Nor is it based on his deliberate targeting of public symbols of female pride and empowerment, for there were none. His first victim was his mother, while the rest were seemingly random.
Despite all the clamour around Davison’s links to incels, Davison did not self-identify as one. Indeed, he was explicit on the point: “I wouldn’t clarify [sic] myself as an incel,” he said in one online video.
An incel is someone who identifies as an “involuntary celibate” and has come to believe that they are systematically deprived of sex. They blame women for this and harbour a special resentment toward conventionally attractive women, whom they call “Stacys”, and sexually successful men, whom they call “Chads”. Incels find support in a fringe online subculture that is saturated in misogyny and violent rhetoric against women.
Although many incels loath identity politics, they nonetheless embrace the rhetoric of self-pity that is synonymous with it: they see themselves as the accursed victims of a hostile and uncaring society, oppressed not because of their race, sex or class, but because of their physical ugliness (as they see it) and a society that pretends to be indifferent to it.
By killing his mother he crossed a psychological threshold
While Davison didn’t identify as an incel, he clearly had much in common with them. In one 14-minute video he posted last month, he spoke about his depression and said he felt “numb” and “defeated by life”. He was a virgin. Indeed, he claimed he had never so much as kissed a woman. He also embraced the philosophy of the “blackpill”, which holds that incels are doomed and that no amount of self-improvement will help them change their sorry fortunes, since society loathes ugly people. He was depressed, too, and, like most incels, he was prone to self-pity and saw himself as a wronged victim. In what he described as an “unscripted rant” just over two weeks ago, he said, “for the most part it’s just been me against the world”.
Davison also had much in common with the handful of incels who have gone on to commit acts of mass-murder. Like Alek Minassian, who in 2018 rammed a van into a crowd of pedestrians on a sidewalk in Toronto, killing ten and injuring sixteen, he was fascinated with other mass shooters. Like Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a rampage in Isla Vista, California, killing six people before killing himself, he was forever online, posting his most intimate thoughts to anyone who would listen.
But there are some notable differences, too. Chief among them is that Davison’s attack doesn’t seem to be political. Indeed, it seems to be deeply personal: he killed his mother, Maxine Davison, 51, in her home. Online, he spoke of his visceral hatred of her. In one Reddit post, he referred to her as “my vile dysfunctional chaotic mother”.
The next people he killed were seemingly random: a three-year-old girl and her father. He then killed a man walking his dog and a woman outside a hair salon. He also shot and seriously wounded a man and his mother nearby. These are not the “Chads” and “Stacys” of the feverish incel imagination.
It is hard to know at this point why he killed these people, but it seems that by killing his mother he crossed a psychological threshold where anything became possible. Perhaps he killed them because he could. Killing them would certainly give him the visibility he no doubt craved, even if he would not live to relish it.
There’s a temptation to attach a meaning and motive
Another connected point relates to the public-private dimension. Davison’s first act of murder was carried out in private: in the very home that he shared with his mother. It was not an act of public violence intended for an audience of distant spectators. This was not political violence as live-streamed theatre; this was a squalid and deeply personal act of domestic violence aimed at the person who brought him into this world and nurtured him.
Whenever someone commits an atrocity there’s a temptation to attach a meaning and motive that gives clarity and coherence to their seemingly incomprehensible actions. All-too-often this is driven not by evidence, but by politically motivated inference. Who do we want them to be?
Within hours of committing his attack, some observers decided that Davison was a symbol of toxic, white male supremacy. “This is terrorism,” a feminist writer and activist wrote on Twitter, referring to Davison’s rampage. She later followed up with a piece in The Guardian on the dangers of “incel extremism”.
For some observers, it probably doesn’t matter what Davison’s motives were. He was white, he was male, he was a misogynist and he was a killer. Therefore he must be a terrorist — “terrorist” now being a stand-in for “monster” or “evil”. But of course intentions matter. Anyone who claims otherwise, or selectively interprets evidence in search of the right intentions, should be condemned for making political capital out of mass murder.
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