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What if the Sydney killer had no motive?

Joel Cauchi, 40, fatally stabbed six people in a crowded Sydney shopping centre on Saturday. Credit: X

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.

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Simon James
Simon James
1 month ago

Indeed. This story might just as easily have been summarised as ‘Disabled man shot dead by the government due to lack of available care’.

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon James

Better still, ‘Neurodiverse man … ‘.

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago
Reply to  Simon James

Absolutely.

Arthur King
Arthur King
1 month ago

He was known to the police which likely means he should have been institutionalized prior to these attacks. Bring back asylums.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
1 month ago
Reply to  Arthur King

“Bring back asylums.”
What’s strange is that it is hard to find anyone opposed to this idea. The ‘mental health advocates’ who insist upon ‘community care’ (i.e., closing institutions and pushing the mentally ill back onto the streets) only seem to exist as policy advocates, not as actual neighbors, family members, colleagues of the mentally ill. Even the psychologists I know believe psychology is pretty much at a loss when it comes to serious mental illness.
In fairness, though, the question is rarely asked, what would be the conditions for involuntary committal to an asylum? We already have involuntary committal laws, but they have an extraordinarily high standard (something like ‘an immediate threat to self or others’) which would likely not be met in the case of the weird guy who mutters and occasionally yells, violates personal space, etc.

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Places of safety. Clean beds. OK food. Kind nurses. A schedule. Light work,gardening or farming to do. Or the orchestra,some had musical bands. How is any of that bad? How is sleeping in a shop doorway and begging better?

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
29 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

Do those who need to be institutionalised for public safety’s sake have the insight to view asylums in this light?

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Katalin Kish

You tell me.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
24 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

If only psychiatric institutions were like that! Having worked as a monitor and human rights advocate at one I saw the abuse and corruption first hand. Instead of cleaning up these hospitals they discharged many patients into the streets under the guise of community care, which didn’t exist. The streets are no better than the fetid wards. Parents are caught in a terrible dilemma trying to get help for their endangered loved ones: dehumanizing confinement or dehumanizing homelessness.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

Some wish to keep the pot boiling. This article has a sense of balance about it.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago

Rather an improvement on Josephine Bartosch

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

On occasion, there is talk of a 48-hour rule or some similar time frame in which we avoid jumping to conclusions that confirm our individual biases. Seems that this case is a prime example of why that is not a bad idea.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

One thing to keep in mind is that something like 60% of mall shoppers are female, so any attack, purely statistically, is going to be weighted towards female victims. Not saying this was entirely the case here, but it’s nonetheless something that should be considered before we draw any conclusions as to motive. Additionally, six, statistically speaking, is a small number; the difference between 83% of his victims being female and 66% of his victims being female is just one person, which could be down to pure chance. It may be that he preponderantly encountered female victims by happenstance.

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
1 month ago

Get with the narrative, man. You won’t get ahead in society speaking truths like that! 😀

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago

I meant to say this in my post. It was just that at that place,day and time the people there would have been mostly female. He may well have known that and attacked them not for the sexual misogynistic reason but because he’d have known a bunch of lads would’ve soon laid him out.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

““It’s obvious to me [
] that the offender had focused on women and avoided the men,” Webb said. But why?”

Because she’s seen the full video perhaps?

“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.”

Well, there’s this – “Mr Cauchi suggested the reason his son – who suffered from schizophrenia – may have targeted women was because “he wanted a girlfriend”. “He’s got no social skills and he was frustrated out of his brain,” he said.”

Which suggests his family were not entirely surprised at the suggestion he deliberately attacked women.

And I’m not sure why there should be evidence he visited incel forums yet – it would take time to establish that.

None of which is exactly proof, and maybe he was just having a psychotic episode with no motive, but the author does seem to ignore these pretty obvious points.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Thanks for pointing out some of the facts.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
29 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Aren’t “incel forums” for the militant kind?
Could Cauchi see other single males – the incels – as unwelcome competition?

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

projecting motives onto a perpetrator, “contrary to all instincts, [
] the story might not be about you — not about your pet subject

Some Unherd writers, and many commenters, do this almost instinctively – almost as if they are rubbing their hands at being “proved right” or getting evidence for their pet dogma.

Another thing to remember is that even if he did feel antipathy towards women, this does not prove that such antipathy is widespread. Nor is it a manifestation of “misogyny”. It is an example of it. Not at all the same thing.

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

I’m a woman,well I am biologically female,and I’m old as well,and I’m very misogynistic. I admit it. Or rather I now recognize it. It’s a mistake or a deliberate Falsification to make misogyny out as a man on woman thing only. I loathe some women, particularly the ones who go on and on about how competent,capable and equal they are then want special concessions for menstruation,menopause,pre menopause,being pregnant,not being pregnant,being so sexy they get groped all the way down the High St,tell me where thus High St is,I’m going there. Those anti-misogyny females would prefer a bunch of blokes to hang out with to me I can tell you

David Morley
David Morley
29 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

The term “misogyny” has gone through enormous scope creep. I’ve just read a BBC article which describes British women being filmed on the street on a Friday or Saturday night as misogyny!

I can understand the women being unhappy. Given the way they dress and behave, a lot of comments, especially from other cultures, are not going to be positive. In many parts of the world dressing in that way, falling over drunk and showing your knickers, flashing at CCTV cameras, throwing up in the gutter while a friend holds your hair out of the way, is frowned on.

But we cannot simply define any criticism of any women as hate. We are surely allowed to have opinions and make judgements – and women do it pretty freely about men.

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
1 month ago

On the subject of using a rampage as non-related evidence of your own obsession, I note the Aussie PM said the event was less disastrous than it could have been because of Australia’s gun laws. A bizarre comment in so many respects; 1) the family members of knifed people won’t be consoled 2) nobody hearing about the event would feel safer – in fact potentially less safe, since its remarkably easier to get knives than it ever was to get guns in aussie 3) the average number of people killed by guns in any random attack in aussie prior to port arthur massacre (35) was next to zero 4) if everyone in the mall carried guns, this killer would not have got far (that’s not an argument for easy gun laws, I just note the irony…)

jane baker
jane baker
29 days ago

So he wasn’t an “incel” after all! Ha ha. Stupid word. It’s short for Involuntary Celibate I believe. And that is a very patronising concept because,to my logic anyway,it bolsters up this idea,possibly started by Hollywood because it makes for good visual images,that everybody has to seek and find that other,The One and if they dont they are not only condemned to life long loneliness but also are proved to be less than human and not a VALID member of society or “the community”. Mary Perry (not her real name) with her eight kids by eight different dads none of whose names she knows,but they bought her a drink,is a more valid member of society than her old spinster neighbour. Thanks to the Sexual Revolution. I think he just felt an inchoate rage at the life around him that he knew he was not a part of,not just sex,all of it,and he wanted to inflict his pain on all those happy contented people. How have I come to.such an accurate analysis. You do not want to know. It even scares me!
Note: I do know that the “other half” idea goes way back to Aristotle but Hollywood ramped it up.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
29 days ago

Article not researched properly?
1) Cauchi was homeless for months prior to this. Not a good start for intimate relationships.
2) His dad admitted that he didn’t have good social skills, and he was frustrated by not having a girlfriend.
3) “Dating” women may have been a string of first dates leading to polite declines at the end of the dates at best.
4) His escort ad shared in an article* would not have attracted many takers. He described himself as a good-looking, athletic guy, offering sensuous massages or “anything”: his photos and text showed an average looking, awkward, tense loser – at 39 years old!
5) His other ads via Meetup would have failed too (asking for someone to teach him Swedish at a beginner level, inviting people to have beginner surf sessions with him looking awkward, stiff, and intense on the photo).
* Source: Herald Sun articles in Australia.

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones
29 days ago

The author is as quick to settle on “he did it because he was schizophrenic” as some are to assume incel ideology as the primary motivator. Thing is, schizophrenia is a bit of an umbrella term encompassing an array of affective, cognitive and behavioural abnormalities. This makes pinning the blame on schizophrenia almost as lazy as inferring an ideological motivator.
Even if we take a leap off of the DSM springboard of over confident classification and say ‘right there is a discrete, sufficiently delineated disorder called schizophrenia’ , as though we are talking about Measles, it’s still not really possible to say that one of the symptoms is mass murder. There are fairly robust data to suggest that a diagnosis of schizophrenia is a reliable a predictor of (usually non fatal) violence, but this relationship is mediated by comorbid substance abuse, and the actual incidence is very low (as you’d expect, we are dealing with small numbers here).
If we should keep an open mind regarding ideology then surely we should do regarding mental health status too.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
29 days ago

Such strenuous efforts to deny that some men have a deep animosity toward women. What could prompt that? Perhaps a cover for their own vicarious identification with the perp? From NYC to the West coast there’s a veritable plague of of women being assaulted, punched in the face in broad daylight by men like Khari Covington, Skiboky Stora, NYC, Anthony Jones in Pasadena, Jean Carlos Zenzuelas, Mallik Miah and many, many others. Some might be mentally unstable, but those suffering from mental illness are often like sponges absorbing the animosities in their environment. Sometimes their perceived malfactors causing them grief are “the communists”, the FBI, Satan, women, whoever are the sanctioned objects of suspicion and hatred by their counterparts – they must be attacked. Even those men not mentally ill may share these unconscious biases, which they are loathe to admit, smugly considering themselves paragons of virtue unlike those contemptible females.

David Morley
David Morley
28 days ago
Reply to  Betsy Warrior

A tiny minority of men have a deep animosity towards women. Recently we had a mass baby killing in the U.K., because a tiny number of women presumably have a deep animosity towards children, or find them easy victims.

What is clear from your post is that you have a general animosity towards men, and are rationalising this through projection. You might want to talk to someone about these feelings.

jane baker
jane baker
27 days ago
Reply to  Betsy Warrior

If you think attractive, beautiful sexy woman get a lot of abuse and hatred from da men try being ugly,non sexual and socially inept,the hatred is off the scale,but it doesn’t count as misogyny because being an ugly woman somehow you don’t count. As a human being. If a man at the bus stop threatens to punch you in the face because you’re a monster the nice girl on the 101 line will tell you it’s not a Hate Crime because you’re not black,gay,or Muslim. Just make yourself a nice cup of tea.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
24 days ago

Well, we see that the author here and his fellow-travellers’ agenda is that misogyny is just a delusion of self-referential, narcistic women. Listen girls it doesn’t exist. Men like George Soldini, Marc Lepine, Alek Minassian, George Hennard, Eliot Rogers, Derrick Todd Lee et al. and all those men in NYC punching out women are just figments of our feverish, paranoid imaginations? Oh dear, the father of Chauchi, who should know him better than these pundits shouldn’t be listened to either. Yes, he has schizophrenia, but people suffering from mental illness often absorb like litmus paper the the animosities of those around them: whether the malfactors be the Commies, the CIA, the Pope, Satan or women. No, no such thing as misogyny here. These fellows doth protest too much.