U.S. Military Issues Warning to Troops About Incel Violence at Joker Screenings [Updated]

Joaquin Phoenix in a clown mask in Todd Philips’ Joker.
Image: Warner Bros.

The U.S. military has warned service members about the potential for a mass shooter at screenings of the Warner Bros. film Joker, which has sparked wide concerns from, among others, the families of those killed during the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

The U.S. Army confirmed on Tuesday that the warning was widely distributed after social media posts related to extremists classified as “incels,” were uncovered by intelligence officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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In a September 18th email, service members were instructed to remain aware of their surroundings and “identify two escape routes” when entering theaters. In the event of a shooting, they were instructed to “run, hide, fight.”

“Run if you can,” the safety notice said. “If you’re stuck, hide (also known as ‘sheltering in place’), and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can.”

The Army said it became aware of potential threats after receiving a bulletin from the FBI, but that it was unaware of any specific plots or suspects. The notice, which was marked “For Official Use Only,” was relayed purely as a precautionary measure, it said.

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A separate memo, issued on Monday by senior officials in the U.S. Army’s criminal investigation division, stated that the Army had obtained “credible” intelligence from Texas law enforcement officials pertaining to “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the dark web “regarding the targeting of an unknown movie theater during the release.”

“We do this routinely because the safety and security of our workforce is paramount,” an Army spokesperson said of the widely distributed warning. “We want our workforce to be prepared and diligent on personal safety both inside the workplace and out.”

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Incel is a term that was adopted in the ‘90s by an online subgroup of self-professed “involuntary celibate” men. Over time, some radicalized members of the incel community have formed an ideology that promotes violence. Elliot Rodger self-identified as an incel before he killed six people near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014. And James Holmes, the man who opened fire in a crowded movie theater in 2012 has become a bit of a hero to the incel community. It’s often been repeated that Holmes was inspired by the Joker, a claim that primarily rests on statements the killer reportedly made to police after the fact in which he said he “was the Joker.” Speaking with the Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Oates, Aurora’s chief of police at the time, said that “there is no evidence” the shooter ever said that.

In the alert emailed to service members, Army officials claimed that incels “also idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series, admiring his depiction as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against bullies.”

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“While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI is in touch with our law enforcement and private sector partners about the online posts,” an FBI spokesperson said. “As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activity to law enforcement.”

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In an age of frequent mass shootings by predominately white American men—at least some of whom have referenced in writing their frustrations with sex—the film has sparked controversy over its desire to compel its audience (at least in its first half) to empathize with a mentally unbalanced and unloved “loser” who inevitably resorts to mass murder.

The gritty film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, reportedly makes strides to depict its titular character in a far more realistic fashion than his comics counterpart. Rather than being transformed into the “Joker” after falling into a vat of acid—as the villain so often does in depictions of his DC Comics origin—a harsh life compounded by constant mockery and an inability to “get the girl” is what ultimately leads to his rise as the infamously batty executioner of comic book lore.

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The Hollywood Reporter reported Tuesday that families who lost relatives in the Aurora shooting, which claimed the lives of 12 moviegoers in 2012 during a screening of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, signed a letter this week to Warner Bros. sharing concerns about the Joker film. With the film set to open on October 4th, the families asked the legendary film studio to donate to groups that aid victims of gun violence.

“We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe,” the letter reportedly says. The film will not be shown in the Colorado theater where the shooting occurred.

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An Air Force officer at Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia—granted anonymity to discuss the Defense Department’s warning freely—said that such notices are occasionally circulated by security managers, but only when deemed “credible.” The officer said that in some cases, commanders may issue an advisory in response; however, one was not issued in this case.

“Frankly, beyond the email, I’ve heard little about it,” the officer said. “A few folks said they’d avoid opening night, or passed it on to their family members for consideration, but I haven’t heard much else in conversation beyond that.”

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Warner Bros. did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement broadly addressing the controversy over the film, Warner Bros. called gun violence a “critical issue” and said that in recent weeks it has called on policymakers to enact legislation to address what it called an “epidemic” of violence. Regardless, the purpose of storytelling, it said, was to “provoke difficult conversations around complex issues.” The company went on to make clear that the film does not endorse real-world violence and said that “it is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

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You can read the email that was circulated by the military in full below:

Team,

Posts on social media have made reference to involuntary celibate (“incel”) extremists replicating the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, at screenings of the Joker movie at nationwide theaters. This presents a potential risk to DOD personnel and family members, though there are no known specific credible threats to the opening of the Joker on 4 October.

Incels are individuals who express frustration from perceived disadvantages to starting intimate relationships. Incel extremists idolize violent individuals like the Aurora movie theater shooter. They also idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series, admiring his depiction as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against his bullies.

When entering theaters, identify two escape routes, remain aware of your surroundings, and remember the phrase “run, hide, fight.” Run if you can. If you’re stuck, hide (also referred to as “sheltering in place”), and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can.

** this is a condensed version of an HQ Army Materiel Command, G-3, Protection Division Security message **

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Got a tip? Contact the reporter by email (dell@gizmodo.com) or send an encrypted text using Signal to 202-556-0846.

Update, 6:30 p.m.: We’ve added a comment from the FBI.

Update, 11:00 p.m.: Added details about a 2nd memo obtained by i09, posted in full below. (Note: While the letter states that intelligence was drawn from the “Travis County, TX Sherriff’s Office,” Gizmodo has learned it was actually drawn from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Joint Crime Information Center.)

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Dell Cameron

Privacy, security, tech policy | Got a tip? Email: dell@gizmodo.com | Send me encrypted texts using Signal: (202)556-0846

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