My first reaction on hearing of the horrific events in Plymouth on Thursday evening was concern for relatives living in the city. My sister-in-law and her husband walk their dog in a park not far from where it happened, and reports that the victims had included dog-walkers were far from reassuring.
They were fine. My sister-in-law had been in a local social club when other people’s phones began pinging with panicked messages about the ongoing incident. They had locked the doors and discussed where they might try to hide if the killer tried to enter. As it turned out, he was already dead by his own hand.
Almost as soon as the news began to break, eager racists and xenophobes were posting on Twitter in the obvious hope that the perpetrator might be a Muslim or a migrant. But it rapidly became clear that he was neither. In fact, his social media posts and the accounts that he followed indicate he was a fan of many of same people admired by these far-right race-baiters, including Tommy Robinson, Paul Joseph Watson and Donald Trump.
For a while it appeared that he might have been a native of Phoenix, Arizona, as the bio on his Facebook page stated, but this turned out to be a fantasy. While he identified strongly with what he saw as the ‘American way’, and with US gun culture in particular, he was Devon-born and spoke with a strong Plymouth accent. This was an entirely home-grown terrorist.
And let’s not mince words: despite the almost immediate police statement that this was not a terrorist incident, that’s exactly what it was. The perpetrator – I do not wish to name this disgusting individual – may have been acting on his own, and his first victim may have been his own mother, but it’s very clear that he was strongly influenced by the twisted ideology of misogynistic hate that has been spreading on the fringes of the so-called ‘alt-right’.
The reason I don’t wish to name him is because one of the motives of people who commit such atrocities is the hope that by doing so they might gain the prominence that they have otherwise failed to achieve in life. As Mic Wright wrote, the sensationalist way that the mass media cover such way incidents makes it almost inevitable that “not only does the killer get a byline, but his fans do too”.
Almost always, the perpetrators of such crimes are deeply inadequate individuals who are painfully aware of their own inadequacy. And some of these people have now embraced a nihilistic ideology that purports to explain this inadequacy and to pin the blame for it on others – specifically on women. The fact that the Plymouth murderer described himself as “black-pilled” indicates that he had taken what is seen by some incels as the ultimate step in the rejection of all social norms and the dehumanisation of women.
The vast majority of those who describe themselves as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates) will not go on to commit mass murder. There is no secret incel organisation planning for further attacks and training people to commit them. As terrorism expert Dr Maria Norris tweeted yesterday: “There are very few formal groups with names and symbols, instead we have a much wider community spread all over the world, united in forums, discord servers etc. They may not have an official name like ‘Isis’, but make no mistake, they are an international threat.”
Dr Norris stresses that “the incel community overlaps with the white supremacist community. It is very hard to disentangle both communities.” Examination of the Plymouth murderer’s social media subscriptions indicates that this was probably the case with him. (Ed: we are deliberately not showing the visual evidence. Suffice it to say it exists.)
There has been considerable speculation about whether the Plymouth murderer was mentally ill, and had perhaps not been able to access the help and support he needed. This is certainly very possible; in fact, it’s arguable that no-one enjoying sound mental health could commit such horrific acts. And there’s no doubt that it has become increasingly difficult to obtain treatment for mental illness in the South West, as in the rest of the UK.
But even if this turns out to be the case, it does not in any way militate against this being an act of terrorism. Indeed, almost all such acts of ‘lone wolf’ terrorist violence in recent years have been committed by individuals who have shown signs of mental illness, whether they have been associated with the far right or with Islamist extremism. Very often, these have been people from troubled family backgrounds, with – as seems to be the case with the Plymouth murderer – a history of anti-social behaviour or petty crime.
This is not, of course, to suggest that most mentally ill people are a danger to others. But it isn’t hard to see how people with a weak grasp of reality, and particularly socially isolated individuals consumed by a sense of personal failure and bitterness, provide fertile ground for extremist ideologies to take hold.
What has changed is that such individuals now have easy access to an abundance of hateful ideology and material celebrating acts of violence. They are now able to join communities of similarly disturbed or malevolent individuals who will affirm and encourage them in their deluded and hateful beliefs. There will already be people in these online communities who are celebrating the horrific murders in Plymouth, as they have done with previous such atrocities.
There are still many unanswered questions about what happened in Plymouth, not least of which is how the perpetrator managed to get a licence to own a pump-action shotgun, and even had this returned to him by police after it had been withdrawn following an alleged assault.
But more than anything, this incident underlines what terrorism experts, including some in the police, have been saying for some time: the threat of far-right terrorism is very real, is growing, and needs to be addressed much more seriously than the government appears to be doing. And the social-media milieu of which the Plymouth terrorist was very much a part is the rancid breeding ground from which more horrors like those we saw in Plymouth this week are more than likely to emerge.