If extreme misogyny is an ideology, doesn’t that make Plymouth killer a terrorist? | Joan Smith

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

Contributor

Joan Smith

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kelis’ courage and eloquence will inspire other women | Rebecca Nicholson
The singer has done a valuable service by speaking out about her toxic relationship with rapper Nas

Rebecca Nicholson

29, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Theresa May must not falter in tackling domestic violence | Barbara Ellen
The prime minister’s initiative on this most pernicious practice is welcome. Now she must put her money where her mouth is

Barbara Ellen

19, Feb, 2017 @12:06 AM

Article image
The Observer view on the domestic abuse bill failing women trapped in lockdown | Observer editorial
Women in life-threatening situations are being let down at a time when they’re most in need of help

Observer editorial

26, Apr, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Domestic abuse, refuges, rape charges...why do we get it wrong on male violence? | Sonia Sodha
Sarah Everard’s death has forced us to reflect on how much we fail victims. And we have hardly begun to think about educating boys

Sonia Sodha

14, Mar, 2021 @7:45 AM

Article image
Brevity is the soul of wit, Mr Davies, so put a sock in it | Barbara Ellen
Philip Davies spoke for 78 minutes to filibuster a ‘sexist’ bill that would protect women from domestic violence. No one is saying he should bite his tongue, but he is debasing his position

Barbara Ellen

18, Dec, 2016 @12:04 AM

Article image
Blunt knives to stop domestic violence? What next – stab vests in the kitchen? | Catherine Bennett
Nottingham police’s initiative is inoperable, ill-considered and will gaslight victims

Catherine Bennett

16, Jun, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
All hail ‘Fleet Street legend’ John Kay. But why overlook that he killed his wife? | Catherine Bennett
Why did so few think it necessary to point out that the Sun reporter killed his wife?

Catherine Bennett

16, May, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
Men are inventing new excuses for killing women and judges are falling for them | Catherine Bennett
Sam Pybus claimed his fatal act was consensual, and was given just four years in prison

Catherine Bennett

12, Sep, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
Removing sharp knives can save lives | Letters
If victims don’t want the perpetrators of domestic violence to be removed from the home, blunt knives are a good alternative

23, Jun, 2019 @4:59 AM

Article image
The Observer view: We can no longer turn away, femicide must be tackled now | Observer editorial
Working with a unique census, our new campaign draws attention to the women who die at the hands of men, and calls for urgent action | Observer editorial

Observer editorial

07, Mar, 2021 @8:45 AM