U.S. News

05.26.14

Let’s Get Real: Santa Barbara Was a Terrorist Act

A person who hates a group of people and goes out and kills them indiscriminately—we call that person a terrorist, right? Only sometimes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” So why don’t we consider the Santa Barbara shooter a terrorist?

On Friday, a 22-year-old gunman went on a shooting rampage in and around the area of the University of California at Santa Barbara, ultimately killing six people before committing suicide. (Note: I will not name the shooter, for reasons about which I have previously written.) Prior to the carnage, the shooter posted a YouTube video and distributed a 137-page manifesto largely attributing his violent anger to his inability to date and have sex with women. 

But the shooter’s rant wasn’t merely woe-is-me self-pity. He actively blamed and condemned women—not just individually, but as a categorical whole—for his shortcomings. “It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it,” the shooter said in the video. 

In telegraphing his rampage, the shooter said he planned to “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see.” 

“If I can’t have you girls, I will destroy you,” said the shooter. “You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true Alpha Male.”

Video screenshot

Sally Kohn joins CNN to explain why the Santa Barbara shooter's misogyny makes him a terrorist.

As Elizabeth Plank and Jessica Valenti and several other writers have pointed out, the shooter’s rants are the very definition of misogyny. And the hatred of women is not a random personal twitch but a deeply ingrained worldview—let’s call it an ideology, even—with social and political implications. Misogyny is so real and dangerous that the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremist anti-women organizations among other threatening hate groups. Valenti writes:

According to his family, Rodger was seeking psychiatric treatment. But to dismiss this as a case of a lone “madman” would be a mistake.

Doing so not only stigmatizes the mentally ill—who are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it—but glosses over the role that misogyny and gun culture play (and just how foreseeable violence like this is) in a sexist society. After all, while it is unclear what role Rodger’s reportedly poor mental health played in the alleged crime, the role of misogyny is obvious.

In telegraphing his rampage, the shooter said he planned to “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see.”

And Plank noted data analysis showing that female students are twice as likely to be injured in school shootings as male students. This is in addition to what is more widely known, although rarely discussed as such—namely, the fact that the vast majority of mass shootings are committed by men.

I’m not saying all men or even most men who commit mass shooting rampages are explicit misogynists, but that the UCSB shooter most clearly and definitely was. Nor am I saying that mental illness didn’t play some role in the UCSB shooter’s acts. Of course it did.

But arguably, mental instability of some sort plays a role in all mass acts of violence, including those we traditionally label terrorism. Whether it’s the neo-Nazi extremist who shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Islamic extremist who killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, or the anti-government radical who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, there are sadly but undoubtedly many people in our nation and in the world who share the ideologies of these terrorists but do not resort to insane murder rampages.

The people who commit mass acts of violence are crazy. Some are also ideologically motivated. We call them terrorists. And yet while in America we’re quick to recognize and politicize the broader implications of Islamic extremism, misogyny is treated not as an ideology but simply a sub-category of crazy.

That not only ignores but quietly allows misogyny-as-ideology to go unexamined in all its other forms, from domestic violence to date rape to street harassment to economic inequality and more—chalking injustice up to individual aberrations rather than a system of dehumanization that is both perpetuated and protected by our social, political, and economic structures. 

If the Santa Barbara shooter had been Muslim, and left the same sorts of video screeds and more, our government and media would undoubtedly be labeling this incident as terrorism. Just as an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist sets out to kill American infidels simply because they are “American infidels,” the Santa Barbara shooter set out to kill women simply because they were women. You tell me the difference. To fail to label the latter terrorism suggests a politicized use of the term, one interested in defending Judeo-Christian Americans and values, but not women.   

The fact of misogyny America is not an accident. It is as deliberate as the shooting in Santa Barbara Friday night. Those who seek to perpetuate misogyny, to actively further the subjugation and suffering of women, are not just nut-balls but adherents of a very specific and very ugly social and political ideology. And those who take up weapons and kill large numbers of people in furtherance of that ideology? They’re terrorists.

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