Article Thumbnail

The Secret Service’s New Report on Incels Explains Where We Keep Going Wrong

The federal investigation provides details on the incel who shot multiple women at a hot yoga studio in Florida, and warns about the systemic failures of every person and organization around him

The man in the 2018 Tallahassee hot yoga murder, who shot six women, killing two, had a long history of behaviors that would make any observer pause. His parents reported sleeping with their door locked in fear of his outbursts, and removed him from a niece’s birthday party after he was caught touching young girls. He was neglected and lonely in high school, and later was mocked by roommates who called him “Ted Bundy.” He was arrested three times for groping women in public during college. He was fired from multiple teaching jobs for inappropriate sexual behavior to students, and received bans from multiple bars and apartment buildings for being erratic and targeting women

Online, he posted violently misogynistic songs and a 70,000-word revenge fantasy about being a serial killer who hunts women. Privately, he ranted and raved about the women who rejected him after first dates, including a hot yoga fan who told him to stop contact after he sent her a barrage of unwanted sexual texts. “If I can’t find one decent female to live with, I will find many indecent females to die with… if they are intent at denying me life, I will have no choice, but to deny them life,” he wrote in his final note, left in his Tallahassee hotel room before the shooting, which ended with him taking his own life. 

The federal government this week released an extensive study on the killer, Scott Beierle, as a case study of the growing threat of mass violence from men who identify as “anti-feminist” or involuntarily celibate — aka “incel.” Since 2014, attacks from men inspired by incel rhetoric and male entitlement have left dozens dead in the U.S., Canada and U.K. 

The Secret Service investigation reveals what many already suspected: Beierle had built up his grievances over a long period of time, testing women’s boundaries, documenting his violent revenge fantasies and searching for different targets. His real-world behavior began mirroring his activity online, growing more abusive with each iteration. And this escalation appears to be linked to a traumatic incident in 8th grade, when Beierle did something at school to make him the target of his peers’ ire and disgust, including what he described as “bullying” from a group of girls. 

The report is both a singular look into an individual with a unique background, but also a reflection of the pains and motivations that affect a broad swath of men who struggle with loneliness and sexual partnership. Only a tiny handful of these men go on to commit acts of violence, mass killings or otherwise, but Beierle’s struggle is one that many incels can likely relate to, even if they’ve never laid a hand on a woman or wished death upon anyone.

Organizations like the Institute for the Research on Male Supremacism have been critical to helping define and document the fuller network of aggrieved male-led ideologies. And there are new studies being broached in order to understand the spectrum of incel behaviors online, including the complex intertwining of misogyny and male self-hatred. But we still need more information on how race and economic class affects misogynistic behaviors, especially as white men continue to rile against the feeling of “dispossession” in dominant cultural hierarchies. 

Instead, thus far, much of the efforts to grapple with incel violence has come via mainstream media swells around the most violent, egregious cases and a focus on preventing “terrorism” from lone-wolf actors through the use of law enforcement resources. It’s this mindset that propelled one 2021 study to conclude that an 18-point criteria can help identify potential incel killers and justify “regular monitoring” of individuals through policing — a strategy that experts say could backfire and simply lead to criminalization and surveillance of a broad swath of innocent people. Indeed, many of the suggested tactics for dealing with lone-wolf incel violence is ripped straight from the “Countering Violent Extremism” handbook, despite an ineffectual legacy of CVE programs that led to racial profiling and massive oversteps in policing. 

“Fundamentally, counter-terrorism frameworks are ill equipped to address ‘non-traditional’ threats that defy easy categorization. The phenomenon of incels (as well as far-right extremism) is fragmented, socially diverse, and perhaps most importantly, amplifies mainstream gender norms that appear acceptable to the public,” argues Eviane Leidig for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.

This is despite what we already have gleaned to be true about the rise of the incel movement: It isn’t a coincidence that this type of killing has gone mainstream during a decade of unprecedented economic, political and social upheaval. One recent study from the University of New South Wales showed that incel activity online correlated most strongly with gaps in local wealth inequality, suggesting that economic stress is a key factor in how male hatred grows. 

Inceldom is also a reactionary movement fueled by deep ignorance about feminism, sexual relations and “gender roles.” Consider the failures of sex and gender education in the U.S. — then imagine that same failure coupled with a Culture War® spurred forth by ideologues like Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson, who swirl insecurities about social unrest, female agency and “wokeness” into a convenient thesis about how Men Are Under Attack™. 

This is a pattern unfolding in various liberal democracies around the world, with similar anti-feminist speech and physical violence unfolding in nations as disparate as South Korea, India and France. Preventing this violence will require so much more than trying to censor or silence speech online. It suggests we need a radical restructuring of how people are educated and cared for, as well as a new way to follow a person’s history of gender-based attacks. A reinforced mental health system in school, with an array of positive resources for young men who feel desperately lonely, could’ve reached someone like Beierle at a much earlier stage of their escalation. 

“Things like social emotional learning or addressing gender norms in schools, or even campaigns that would take place in a neighborhood. [It’s all] a way of getting at it — targeting all people and blanketing them with some prevention messages that would be helpful no matter who you are, but ideally would help to create the impression for people who ultimately are going to wind up being at high risk that this is a community, or school or workplace, where those kinds of actions are not the norm and are not okay,” as Emily Rothman, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University, told Mother Jones. 

Educating young men about media disinformation on thorny subjects like gender identity, wage gaps and the status quo of misogyny, all of which are weaponized for anti-feminist propaganda, would likely leave lasting benefits. So could funding community resources that pull angry men out of online bubbles and into spaces where they can connect over tasks and goals that provide a sense of meaning and belonging to an otherwise isolated life. 

In other words, addressing incel violence means addressing major shifts in society on a holistic level, not just tracking online speech, red-flagging explicit threats and addressing how young men can access deadly firearms in a short period of time. 

The Secret Service report affirms this, noting that while inceldom is a problematic ideology, it takes far more than a single ideology to lead someone to kill. Despite his superficial ability to pursue higher education, serve in the military and hold “highly regarded professional positions,” Beierle left a long trail of concerned peers including his parents, siblings, friends, roommates, coworkers, school officials, law enforcement and online communities. It’s not that people weren’t concerned — it’s that they had no idea what to do with Beierle despite so many signs. 

There is a concept called the “Swiss cheese theory” of accident causation, which uses the holes in a slice of Swiss as a metaphor for how a major flaw can pass through several layers of protection, if the “holes” in those layers line up just so. It’s an elegant way to understand how, for instance, a commercial airliner can crash despite so many preventative measures and training — and why the aviation industry is so diligent about using each accident to build in another “layer of cheese” to its processes. 

Somehow, we’ve utterly failed to do this in our approach to understanding and contending with incel violence. America has fed the problem by otherizing incels as violent, pathetic men who are a product of their own sins, rather than the end result of many collective lapses. It’s no wonder that would-be killers take so much inspiration from notorious figures like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian — they view themselves as the vigilante vanguard of a revolution, and take pride in being strong enough to do what others will not. 

This mentality isn’t just a challenge for preventing violence. It’s a challenge of empathy and acceptance that lacks quick-fix tools. Much more needs to be learned about incel men, as well as the difference between those who just talk bitterly on forums versus those who take up arms. Unfortunately, the Secret Service’s new report only tells us what we already knew. In the Swiss cheese model of preventing incel violence, we simply lack the layers to catch someone who’s falling through holes, again and again.