The red flags that were missed about Toronto van attacker

Like other Canadians, I was horrified by the van attack in Toronto this week. My first question was: “Why?”

As it turns out, the attack was possibly a disturbing reprise of a similar massacre, targeting mostly women in the California community of Isla Vista in May 2014. 

Facebook has confirmed that a post of the suspect in Toronto’s van attack, Alek Minassian, is real, and was a salute to Elliot Rodger, who published his deranged manifesto bemoaning his “involuntary celibacy” prior to his shooting and driving spree that killed six people. 

I wrote about that case – and an earlier, lesser-known case of George Sodini in Pennsylvania  – in my recent book, Murder in Plain English, and the signs that were missed about Rodger in particular, who has become the martyr for a larger “incel” (or involuntary celibacy) subculture online. He shot and killed himself in his BMW after colliding with a parked car during his rampage. 

The Toronto case, as we know, ended differently. Constable Ken Lam was captured on cellphone video arresting the van attack suspect and doing so without firing a shot, while the suspect pantomimed having a pistol of his own. 

In fact, the suspect announced he had a gun while engaging in what appeared to be a well-rehearsed quick draw with a mobile device, all in a bid to have the officer shoot and kill him. 

It’s what is often called “suicide by cop” and it’s a preferred ending among lone-wolf terrorists. 

But Lam’s remarkable restraint has instead allowed the media to focus on the real subtext of this horrific rampage — the motive no one saw coming, but one with a series of disturbing antecedents that we all need to pay attention to. 

While there has been a movement of late in the media to omit any reference to the name or image of mass murderers when reporting on these events, “incel” requires a conversation because it represents only the latest online movement catering to the disordered and the disaffected.

Incel has now claimed the suspect in the Toronto van attack, Alek Minassian, as one of their own

The biographical details now emerging about the Toronto van attack suspect fit some symptoms of a condition known as schizoid personality disorder.

While it sounds like schizophrenia, it’s not. In fact, unlike schizophrenia, schizoids know exactly what they’re doing. It might be best described as the closest thing to clinical misanthropy — a visceral hatred of people — as you can get. 

It’s also a personality disorder, not an illness per se in fact, it’s very rare in clinical settings, or among people suffering from mental illness.

The latest edition of the DSM-5, the definitive text on personality disorders, reveals some of the disorder’s hallmarks and red flags: 

• Disinterested in group or social activities.

• Solitary by nature, in part due to an overriding arrogance, anger at the world and sense of entitlement.

• Takes pleasure in few activities, generally solemn and inactive.

• A dull, cold affect, coupled with indifference to praise or criticism.

• Late onset of formative life experiences or rites of passage, such as education, obtaining a driver’s licence or job and intimacy.

But while those with the condition are generally averse to sexual activity, we see a preoccupation with sex in a number of noteworthy cases. The objectification of women, an inability to distinguish between sex and real intimacy and a fixation on fantasy in the absence of real-life experiences can all prove to be a dangerous mix that fuels new and more violent fantasies. 

This is especially the case when, for reasons not fully understood, those with the condition also exhibit psychopathic tendencies. 

Many schizoids nurture their angry oeuvre as YouTube trolls — the same trolls who, in some unconscious manner, might have at least in part influenced Lam’s decision not to pull the trigger. Others take their anger into the real world. 

Rodger’s last will and testament was published to YouTube before his massacre as a call to action, and his earlier manifesto, My Twisted World, as its script.

If ISIL has its soldiers of the caliphate, we are possibly seeing the next iteration of deadly lone-wolf emissaries in the case of incel. 

If the incel speculation about the accused Toronto attacker is true, the constable who did not shoot has left us with a living, breathing suspect who may help us to deepen our understanding of his heinous motives — and perhaps even prevent future such crimes.

Michael Arntfield is a former police detective turned author and associate professor of Criminology & English Literature at Western University. A slightly different version of this story was originally published at | @nowtoronto

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