Were the Isla Vista shootings on 24 May the act of a madman, a hate crime, or terrorism?

We cannot help but despair on hearing that it has happened again. A young man, possessing guns, has been able to perpetrate carnage and massacre in the US, yet again.

This time it was in Isla Vista, in Santa Barbara, California. He was a wealthy young man living in a prosperous neighbourhood, the owner of several guns and a BMW car.

I choose not to name him. Like other perpetrators of such massacres, his final actions were to make people remember and acknowledge him. He does not deserve that.

The young man took ‘retribution’ against women for his own sense of failure. In doing so he took the lives of at least six people, plus his own. His victims were predominantly young students at the University of Calfornia Santa Barbara, including Katie Cooper, Veronika Weiss, and Christopher Martinez. They are the ones who deserve to be named and remembered.

The first response to this has been to look at the man’s mental state. He was diagnosed as having Aspergers, and somehow this has become an explanation. There are millions of people with the same condition, but they do not all go out and act so terribly. Likewise, it is all too easy to use mental illness, or madness, as an explanation. By far, the tragic fact is that the majority of people with mental illnesses cause harm to themselves, not to others.

The main ‘explanation’ of this man’s horrific actions has been provided by the short video he posted on Youtube the day before his killing spree, in which he talked about how he would achieve retribution (a strong indication that he wanted people to notice him). In the video he talked of the life he had lived, as ‘an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires’, which was the result of rejection by women, and of men ‘taking’ the girls from him.

The killings were his form of retribution against women, because of the women who had rejected him.

‘You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime, because… I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.’

‘I’m going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB and I will slaughter every single spoilt, stuck-up, blonde slut that I see inside there’

Although men also were a target (and victims) of his killings, it is clear from his words that his actions were in a large part directed at women – not just the particular women who had ‘rejected’ him, but all women, for not liking the ‘nice guy’ that he felt he was.

In this respect, the killings were quite clearly a hate crime against women, an expression of a man’s hatred for women.

This is a point that was taken up on Twitter in the conversations labelled #YesAllWomen. This wide reporting of women’s sense of fear and victimisation by men is a clear indication of the fact that the Isla Vista killer was not alone in his actions. Many other women have been on the receiving end of hate crimes by men against women – whether in the form of rape, domestic abuse and violence, or low level humiliations and discrimination.

In many respects, the actions action were a form of terrorism. The sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who works at UCSB and whose home overlooked the shootings has blogged that

‘His was an act of terrorism since it was a public performance of violence meant to spread fear and give him a sense of control.

‘I would be tempted to call him a Christian terrorist even though he was not remotely religious since he would have been called a Muslim terrorist if his name was Abdul rather than Elliot. But it would be more accurate to call him an American terrorist. Like most “lone wolf” terrorists in recent incidents around the country and the world, he is a private actor; but he is also a part of a larger cultural momentum…’

The terrorist act he carried out was directed at women, in general, as his video made clear.

It has been noted that if he had been African American, or Latino, or Muslim then these markers of his identity would have been used in some way to explain his actions. Instead, as Juergensmeyer points out, we are left with the general term ‘American terrorist’, of the truly home-grown variety.

My most overwhelming sense from this, apart from the sadness and anger, is that yet again we have an example of what Hannah Arendt described as the banality of evil.

This man was not a monster, but he did monstrous things. His Youtube video was chilling in its simplicity. The man was not unique, there are millions more like him. The banal acts of evil do not always make headline news, thankfully, but as the #YesAllWomen discussions have shown, his hate crimes and terrorism against women are indicative of a much larger problem.

Some reflections on Isla Vista, 24 May 2014 on Vidoyen

by Malory Nye time to read: 4 min