What did the Minassian verdict tell us about terrorism?

The verdict in the 2018 Toronto van killings was a good reminder that jumping to conclusions about terrorism is rarely a good idea

We humans crave two things above all: simplicity and certainty.

Complexity and doubt are our enemies as they cause us angst. It is not for nothing that the phrase KISS – keep it simple stupid – is often used when telling people how to best get their point across.

This all applies when something terrible has happened such as a murder or a terrorist attack. In the immediate aftermath of a tragic event we want to KNOW and we want to know NOW what transpired and why. We are not a patient species, hence all the immediate speculation and statement of fact despite the paucity of actual data. I have often called this ‘instant analysis‘.

That very thing occurred on April 23, 2018 when a van careened down Yonge Street, a major north-south thoroughfare in Toronto, striking pedestrians randomly: ten were killed and 16 injured, the victims ranging in age from 22 to 94. The driver, 25-year old Alek Minassian, later stopped and tried to effect what is commonly called ‘suicide by cop’: i.e.. get shot by a police officer while posing a threat. He failed in what was an extraordinary action by a Toronto officer who assessed he was in no immediate danger and took the suspect alive.

Prior to his rampage, Minassian posted on FaceBook “Private (Recruit) [Doe] Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please.C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.” He was referring to ‘involuntary celibates‘ and Elliot Rodger, an American who in May 2014 killed six people and injured fourteen others in California before killing himself. Rodger had left a rambling 141-page ‘manifesto’ blaming ‘Chads’ and ‘Staceys’ (men and women who get all the sex) for his inability to have a meaningful sexual relationship.

Cue the instant analysis!

In the hours and days following Minassian’s despicable acts, ‘experts’ proclaimed with the utmost confidence that he was a violent incel, that this was an act of terrorism, that Canada’s security services should drop everything and focus on this form of violent extremism and that this was the new ‘wave’ of terrorism.

And on every single count the ‘instant experts’ were wrong.

In her judgment Justice Anne Molloy dispelled most of these foregone conclusions. Minassian, she wrote, was not an incel but used this trope to justify his act: he had long fantasised about mass murder and wanted to ‘set a record’ for the most kills. This was an act of mass murder, not terrorism. Another crime of this magnitude has not been replicated anywhere, let alone in Canada, since (never say never, but one can maintain that for all kinds of phenomena).

RELATED: Borealis weighs in on the conclusion of the Minassian trial

More egregiously, after this attack the Liberal government in Canada revised how our security services looked at terrorism and crafted a document in which the neologism Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism (IMVE) (what was wrong with terrorism, which we have used for decades?) was invented and a new category – gender-driven violence – which has little to do with terrorism was added. This form of violence is better seen as misogyny or a hate crime, not terrorism (although terrorist groups often have misogyny and hate built into their ideologies and actions). This was a purely political move.

In a rush to label this violent act we lost sight of the need to have data, solid data, on which to base our analysis. Minassian’s one Facebook message – one! – posted just prior to his crime was taken as incontrovertible evidence that he was an incel and that this was the cusp of a horrific campaign of misogynistic terrorism. And yet Justice Molloy found that Minassian had lied about his ‘ties’ to incels, made up alleged conversations with Rodger and Chris Mercer (another incel killer), and simply used this fictitious link to embellish his image. Basing a theory on one data point is lousy work.

Those who jumped on this bandwagon of certainty failed the cardinal principle of analysis: corroborate, corroborate, corroborate. In the end, there was no ‘evidence’ to back up the incel hypothesis. This whole affair smacks of political correctness and an ill-advised attempt to shift the conversation away from real terrorist threats (i.e. jihadis and, at least in the US increasingly, far right extremism) to an agenda, a cause, a baseless conviction.

We should hope that there is a lesson in all this.

Don’t sound sure when you have no reason to be so. Don’t allow your prejudices to overtake facts. Don’t forget to allow time for more data to come in before pronouncing judgment.

Who am I kidding? Instant analysis will continue to reign as that is what we – and the media – want: certainty and simplicity. We will see more of this shoddy commentary by self-styled ‘experts‘ on our screens and few will admit they were wrong when it turns out they were.

Ah well, it is still worth a try to beg for accuracy and maturity in this regard. Call me naive, but…

Read More on the Incel Phenomenon

Podcast 21 – Are Incels Terrorists?

Alek Minassian killed 10 people and wounded 16 in an alleged ‘incel’ attack in Toronto on April 23, 2018. Was this a terrorist incident and are incels terrorists?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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