Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2019
Few people would deny that America has a gun problem. Last weekend there were two mass shootings, in Texas and Ohio, which left 29 people dead and dozens injured. They have prompted another row about the easy availability of lethal weapons and the reluctance of prominent politicians, including Donald Trump, to do anything about it.
What isn’t so obvious, to mainstream commentators at least, is that the root cause of the problem is toxic masculinity. There have been 251 mass shootings in the US this year alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and we know a great deal about the men who carry them out.
Every time it happens, I wait for the same predictable stories to emerge – a history filled with rage against women, immigrants, Jews or Muslims, often expressed in alarming posts on the Internet. These men are angry and they don’t try to hide it, seeking out similarly-minded individuals online and sharing hate-filled conspiracy theories.
For the racists and right-wing extremists, the target is likely to be black Americans, Jews or immigrants. Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old suspect in the Texas shooting, is in custody after running into a Walmart store in El Paso on Saturday and allegedly opening fire on customers, including families with children. Many of the dead were Mexican and the shooting is being investigated as a hate crime after police discovered a message posted nineteen minute earlier on the website 8chan, claiming the attack was response to ‘the Hispanic invasion of Texas’.
Thirteen hours later, in the early hours of Sunday morning, 24-year-0ld Connor Betts started shooting in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people. Like many mass shooters, Betts was in the grip of a military fantasy, wearing body armour and carrying a high-powered rifle. In another pattern common among mass murderers, his victims included a female family member – his sister, Megan, 22. Six of the fatalities were black. Unlike Crusius, Betts was shot dead by armed police.
It has since emerged that he was almost certainly an ‘incel’ – short for involuntary celibates, a group of men who complain bitterly that women won’t have sex with them. According to former classmates, Betts was suspended from high school in 2012 after scrawling a ‘hit list’ on the wall of a school toilet, consisting of boys he wanted to kill and girls he wanted to rape. Some of the girls on the ‘rape list’ had reportedly turned down his demands for a date and were warned by police that they were potential targets.
‘The officer said he wouldn’t be at school for a while,’ one woman recalled after last weekend’s shooting, ‘but after some time passed he was back, walking the halls. They didn’t give us any warning that he was returning to school.’ After Betts was identified as the killer, a number of women in Ohio went on the Internet and reported his ‘history of threats & abuse of women’.
In recent years, incels have been implicated in a number of fatal attacks, the most notorious being that carried out in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 by an angry, entitled young man called Elliot Rodger. He killed six people and injured 14 before dying in his car, leaving behind a rambling ‘manifesto’ which revealed his obsession with blondes and his incomprehension that women didn’t want to sleep with him.
Rodger has become a hero among other self-identified incels, including the suspect in a fatal vehicle attack in Canada in 2018. Alek Minassian, 25, who has been charged with ten deaths after allegedly driving a van into pedestrians in Toronto, posted a message on Facebook hailing ‘the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger’.
What virtually all these men have in common is an aggrieved sense of entitlement. Their self-importance is matched only by their rage when they think other people are getting what should rightfully be theirs – sex, jobs, money, power. Some incels argue that society should compel women to have sex with them – a risible idea, except for the fact that there is nothing to stop men like Rodger and Betts acquiring lethal weapons.
Right-wing extremists have a different set of grievances, rooted in unpleasant ideas about white supremacy. Crusius appears to have driven ten hours to El Paso, deliberately choosing to stage the massacre in a town near the Mexican border with a large Hispanic population. The unsigned ‘manifesto’ which has been linked to his attack warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners, repeating a well-known racist theory called ‘the great replacement’.
But what motivates both groups, white supremacists and misogynists alike, is a pernicious belief that they matter more than the rest of us. It is a form of toxic masculinity – the most toxic form, in fact – which has a long history in America, stretching back to the grim days of slavery. Racists are often misogynists as well, even if incels are a relatively recent phenomenon, encouraged by their ability to find each other on the Internet.
One way of tackling America’s unique gun problem would be to make it harder to acquire lethal weapons. But even if that were to happen – and many attempts have foundered over the years – it wouldn’t solve the underlying issue. The US has a serious problem with angry white men, and the warning signs are being missed time and time again.