April 18, 2024 - 1:00pm

On Saturday, as raw video footage of the knife attack at the Westfield Bondi Junction mall in Sydney started to surface on social media, signs were present which could have suggested jihadi involvement: jihadi lone wolves have used knives before on multiple occasions in Western towns and cities, and jihadi terrorism seems to have made something of a comeback of late.

Tommy Robinson was adamant that it was “fucking JIHAD”. Julia Hartley-Brewer was similarly categorical. As was Paul Golding, co-leader of Britain First. By Sunday morning, however, the optics had shifted: it was not fucking jihad, after all. The New South Wales (NSW) police named the perpetrator as Joel Cauchi, a 40-year-old from Queensland. He was white and he wasn’t a Muslim (and he definitely wasn’t a person called Benjamin Cohen). But he was a male and it had transpired that of the six people he murdered, five were women.

Following these revelations a new narrative dropped: it was fucking misogyny. Cauchi, Josephine Bartosch wrote in these pages, was “a woman-hating maniac”. Jessica Taylor, writing in the Independent, similarly asked, “what is the ‘ideology’ that drives a man to brandish a long knife, run into a mall and murder as many women as he can? And why does nobody dare mention the ‘M’ word? No, not ‘murder’ – but ‘misogyny’.”

According to NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb, it was clear that Cauchi was targeting women; and of the 12 others who he non-fatally stabbed, most were female. “It’s obvious to me […] that the offender had focused on women and avoided the men,” Webb said.

But why? There are several possibilities. The first is that he did so because women offered the least resistance. Ironically, the one person Cauchi tried to attack who offered the most resistance was a female cop, but she was carrying a gun and shot him dead with it.

The second possibility is that Cauchi had a deep loathing of women because he wasn’t able to have sexual relationships with them, and that this loathing drove him to murder and terrify them as a form of revenge for their (in his mind) cruel indifference toward him. These kinds of attacks are rare, but they have happened before. Elliot Rodger, for example, went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, killing six people before taking his own life.

What is the evidence that Cauchi hated women, much less that he was an incel who had been inspired by the extreme misogyny of that group’s subculture? Thus far, there is none. We do know that he had dated women and had advertised his services on at least three male escort sites, which doesn’t exactly suggest inceldom. Nor is there any evidence yet that he had visited or was active on incel online forums.

A third possibility is that Cauchi was out of his mind and didn’t know what he was doing. This is because he was suffering from schizophrenia, which he was diagnosed with when he was 17. It is thus possible that due to his illness Cauchi may not have had any clear or stable motives at all for embarking on his attack, let alone a coherent ideology that he wanted to advance or a deep hatred that he wanted to murderously enact.

Perhaps he was both mentally unwell and harboured violent fantasies about killing women. But while we have been told that he was mentally ill, we as yet know nothing about his internal world, his thoughts about women, and what was going through his mind when he prepared for and launched his attack.

The impulse to attribute a meaning or cause to horrific violence is understandable. But we must be careful. As the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood has previously warned about projecting motives onto a perpetrator, “contrary to all instincts, […] the story might not be about you — not about your pet subject, not about your community, not about the issues that affect you and occupy your thoughts, no matter how important or worthy those issues may be.” We would do well to remember this counsel of prudence in our current age of global rancour and polarisation.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.