Sympathy for the devil

Hope you guess the name

One of the most striking aspects of the Plymouth shooting on 12 August was among the least commented on. It took less than six minutes for armed officers to arrive on the scene after they first heard reports of gunshots.

Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that police in one of Britain’s main naval centres can scramble so quickly. Even so, the idea that law enforcement can put guns on the ground at that pace is at turns alarming and reassuring.

Our evident preparedness to deal with such threats – which are basically inevitable every once in a while – did not deter many from seeking a target to blame. Some alighted on shooter Jake Davison’s interactions with involuntary celibate (incel) content online, largely catering to men who can’t get laid and are angry about it.

Since then several news publications have run insider accounts from those who have lurked on the wrong kind of message boards. “What I found out as a woman on incel sites”, is among the latest from the Times, with the author “shocked by the sheer hatred” aimed at women, parents and the world.

I don’t intend to exculpate the people who frequent such forums, nor the attitudes encouraged within them. But I do think the likes of Davison deserve some sympathy, even while you condemn their actions.

Though social media networks have been scrubbing Davison’s online contributions from the internet, his YouTube rants have been transcribed for posterity. Among the more comprehensive accounts comes from the Mail, describing “a maniac who called himself the Terminator”.

This is perhaps not the first instance of a misleading Mail headline. As the embedded video makes clear, in his south-west accent Davison compares himself to the Terminator in a positive sense: “despite reaching almost total system failure, he keeps trying to accomplish his mission.” The mission in this case is to improve his life.

Your words are liable to be re-interpreted once you’ve shot up a suburb, of course. But in such clips Davison comes across as much more sympathetic than his press cuttings suggest. Socially isolated, autistic, unable to find sex or romance, and struggling with his appearance, he felt that life had already passed him by.

“Imagine failing at everything in life and having absolutely no support whatsoever,” sounds like the opening to a Guardian feature. Had Davison fallen into petty crime or cheating the benefits system, and without his connections to online oddballs, it is easy to imagine a nicer profile of him in a left-wing paper.

Alas, mental health problems are not equally palatable to everyone, and no paper is in the business of batting for losers like Davison. He may have been failed by society, but not in a way that draws sympathy from any political faction (bar perhaps the folks at UnHerd).

“It’s just been me fighting an uphill battle with a big fucking rock on my back, seeing motherfuckers that don’t deserve half of anything – they’re getting a free ride to the top,” was how Davison described his situation. Others may have called it ‘shit life syndrome’: you are depressed because your life sucks.

Deserving or not, had Davison’s life been better I suspect he wouldn’t have done what he did. Even from this distance it’s easy to think that if his autism was better managed, his social life more stimulating or his romantic aspirations more fulfilled then I’d not be writing about him.

I doubt any human society will ever fully eliminate such violence. But between the bootstrap individualism of the conservatives and progressive hostility to male sexuality, the point that Davison was right to feel he had been left behind has been lost. Thankfully armed police are only six minutes away.