The Observer, Sunday 15 August 2021
To track the ‘incel’ diatribes uttered and read by Jake Davison, murdering women can seem like the logical conclusion to their seething hatred
The hours after a fatal attack on members of the public are harrowing. Confusion reigns, rumours swirl and anxious people try to contact loved ones to make sure they are safe. Last Thursday evening, as reports of gunfire and possible fatalities on a housing estate in Plymouth began to circulate, the question of whether it was a terrorist incident was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. When Devon and Cornwall police announced it was not terrorism-related, I wondered how they could be so sure – and their judgment has been called into question by everything that has emerged since.
We now know that 22-year-old Jake Davison was a misogynist who shot dead his mother, who had recently been treated for cancer, before taking the lives of four others. There are parallels between Plymouth and the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012, when Adam Lanza shot his mother five times before going to a primary school where he killed 20 children and six adults, all women. Not for the first time, the significance of extreme misogyny in the genesis of a fatal attack on members of the public seems to have been missed.
It is hard to see how Davison’s actions fail to meet the government’s definition of terrorism, which includes “the use of threat or action… to intimidate the public”. Examples include serious violence against one or more people, endangering someone’s life or creating a serious risk to the health and safety of the public: tick, tick and tick. But here is the get-out clause. The definition stipulates that terrorism must be “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and it is often argued that even the most extreme misogyny does not meet that test.
It seems that its deadly interaction with other forms of extremism is poorly understood, something that struck me forcibly after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Five years earlier, Salman Abedi was already showing signs of being radicalised, but the significance of his assault on a young Muslim woman at college was not recognised. Abedi punched her in the head for wearing a short skirt, almost knocking her out in front of witnesses. It was an act of staggering brutality, displaying a toxic combination of misogyny and allegiance to Islamist ideology, along with a low threshold for violence. Yet Abedi was not charged. Greater Manchester police dealt with the incident through restorative justice and Abedi owned up to anger management issues, avoiding a referral to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme. In what seems to be an example of history repeating itself, it has been revealed that Devon and Cornwall police recently restored Davison’s firearms licence, which he lost in December, after he agreed to take part in an anger management course.
Yet Davison made no secret of his seething resentment of women, posting hate-filled diatribes on YouTube. He compared himself to “incels” – involuntary celibates – angry young men who blame women for their inability to get sex and revealed an obsession with guns. In a video uploaded three weeks before the shootings, he came close to justifying sexual violence. “Why do you think sexual assaults and all these things keep rising?” he demanded in a 10-minute rant, claiming that “women don’t need men no more”. One of the questions Devon and Cornwall police need to answer is if they were aware of the content of Davison’s social media posts when they returned his licence.
In North America, incels have been linked with white supremacy, as well as being held responsible for the murders of around 50 people. In Canada, their ideology has been designated a form of violent extremism following an attack on a Toronto massage parlour last year in which a woman was stabbed to death by a 17-year-old man. It was the second such attack in the city in two years, after a self-described incel drove a van into pedestrians in 2018, killing 10 people.
In the UK, however, misogyny is not even widely recognised as the driving force behind violence against women. Time and again, we hear about men who supposedly “just snapped” and killed their female partners in what the police describe as “domestic” and “isolated” incidents. Not so isolated, given that 1,425 women were killed by men in the UK between 2009 and 2018, but we are expected to believe that such homicides could not be predicted or stopped. In fact, it is rare for a woman to be murdered by a current or former partner without a previous history of domestic abuse.
Hatred of women is normalised, dismissed as an obsession of feminists, even when its horrific consequences are staring us in the face. In June last year, two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were murdered in a north London park by a teenager. Danyal Hussein, now 19, had been referred to Prevent after using school computers to access rightwing websites, but was discharged after a few months with no further concerns. What seems to have been missed is his virulent misogyny, which led him to make a “pact” with a “demon” to kill six women in six months.
Five years ago, I began to notice how many men who committed fatal terrorist attacks had a history of misogyny and domestic abuse – practising at home, in other words. No one would listen so I wrote a book about it, listing around 50 perpetrators who had previously terrorised current and ex-partners. It was published in 2019 and inspired groundbreaking research by counter-terrorism policing, showing that almost 40% of referrals to the Prevent programme had a history of domestic abuse, as perpetrators, witnesses or victims. Project Starlight has produced a number of recommendations, arguing that counter-terrorism officers need to look for evidence of violence against women when they are assessing the risk posed by suspects.
That is a welcome development, but we need to go further. We are all in shock after hearing about the horrific events in Plymouth, while the grief of the victims’ families is awful to contemplate. But Davison’s murderous rampage demonstrates that our understanding of what constitutes terrorism is too restrictive. Extreme misogyny needs to be recognised as an ideology in its own right – and one that carries an unacceptable risk of radicalising bitter young men.
Joan Smith is the author of Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists