Labelling acts of violence “terrorist attacks” has become almost automatic in recent years. The phrase is pulled out at the drop of a hat to describe events that, while violent, are not always acts of terrorism.
Once the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” have been used, the attitudes of fear and racism that follow do not go away. Public anxiety is raised, and racialized communities are wrongly targeted for retribution.
For these reasons, I was initially happy to see, in the immediate wake of Monday’s van attack on pedestrians in Toronto, that Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale and others resisted associating what had happened with terrorism. Indeed, he, Toronto mayor John Tory and Premier Kathleen Wynne, assured Torontonians and Canadians that there were no public safety concerns and that there was no reason to believe that the attack had been one of terrorism.
However, as more information has come to the surface about the possible motivation of Alex Minassian, the man who has been charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder as a result of the van attack, I find myself thinking that perhaps this is a time when we should be using the T word.
Typically, we understand this to mean political aims of established organizations, with names we know. To be more precise, the term is overwhelmingly used in response to acts allegedly undertaken by Muslim groups or groups people believe to espouse Islamic ideas.
But the NATO definition does not restrict the meaning to organizations of any kind, simply to acts of violence undertaken in the pursuit of political aims.
A terrorist by any other name
These two definitions bring us to Monday’s events, Alex Minassian and others of his ilk, some of whom band together loosely online as “incels.”
Can misogyny be said to form a political aim? When acted on, is it a form of terrorism? Does misogyny exist on a continuum, with violent acts – acts of terrorism – at one end of it?
On CBC’s The Current this morning, author Rebecca Solnit described misogyny as a kind of terrorism that has been normalized because of who gets to tell the story and because it is so pervasive. She sees actions like those of Minassian as an intensification of misogynist culture. According to Solnit, violence by misogynists is a reflection of both the entitlement and rage they feel.
Journalist Arshy Mann agreed, noting that while incels and other extremist misogynists are not an organized group with a leader, hierarchy or structure they are, thanks to the internet, loose networks of men who find each other online.
The fallout begins
A friend texted me as I was writing this piece to tell me of an incident in her workplace today. A male employee, in a loud voice, expressed his opinion that the van attack was motivated by sexual repression and said that if Canada had legalized prostitution, it wouldn’t have happened.
No wonder Solnit says that women live with the threat of violence every day.
I, for one, have had enough of hearing these misogynist comments and of the men who think they can pronounce them anywhere they want. I have had enough of the entitlement claimed by too many men, of the rage they seem to feel when they don’t get what they think they are owed, of the right they seem to think they have to blame women for their woes and take out their rage on others, often but not exclusively women.
Choosing our words carefully
The words we use to describe what happens in our communities matter. While the term terrorist is often used inappropriately, that does not mean it should never be used.
If the information we have at this point about Minassian is correct, then his van attack that left 10 people dead and another 14 injured should be called what it was: an act of misogynist terrorism.