Crying Terror In Error?

The other day, I came across a report that the FBI released in 2002. It described a wave of deadly and random public attacks by 'lone wolf' shooters that had spread across the U.S. during the 1990s. The report had found that all these attacks had had several features in common:

        They were rarely sudden, impulsive acts.

        Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.

        There was no accurate or useful profile of [people] who engaged in targeted violence.

        Most attackers engaged in some behaviour prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.

        Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.

        Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.

A person could be forgiven for thinking that this report was describing the recent spate of mass murders carried out by extremists across Europe and the UK. However, the report was actually referring to the perpetrators behind 37 high-school shootings that happened in affluent, American neighbourhoods.  As I recently found out, many more parallels can be found between the phenomenon of high school shootings in the U.S., and the wave of lone-wolf ‘terror’ attacks that is now creeping across Europe (and the U.S.).

The Columbine High School massacre was easily the worst of the high school shootings that were examined in the 2002 FBI report. In April 1999, two disaffected students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went to the school fully armed with shotguns and semi automatic weapons and proceeded to murdered 12 students, injuring 21 more.

USA Today wrote that Columbine was, "a suicidal attack [that was] planned as a grand—if badly implemented—terrorist bombing.” 

The article goes on to list an entire arsenal of weapons that Harris and Klebold had prepared for the attack:  “In addition to the shootings, the complex and highly planned attack involved a fire bomb to divert fire-fighters, propane tanks converted to bombs, 99 explosive devices, and car bombs."

The way that the Columbine massacre was planned bears a striking similarity to the bombing attack carried out in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two white nationalists. In 2011, far right nutter Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb in Oslo and then shot and killed more than sixty students at a liberal summer camp, in another similar attack. The similarities between all three incidents are not entirely a coincidence - both Breivik and the Columbine killers were inspired by the Oklahoma city attack. Though they hailed from radically different political backgrounds, ideology was no barrier to the love of violence that all these lone wolves shared.

The same could be said for the lone wolf terrorist attacks that are happening with increasing frequency across Europe today: whether they are carried out by right wing extremists, Islamic extremists or people claiming some other 'cause', they all share a kind of nihilistic disregard for all life, even the people who are supposedly on 'their' side. Though they may claim to be fighting for (or against) a specific group, these new lone wolf attackers seem more like they are targeting society as a whole

Statistics that break down European terror attacks by political and religious affiliation are hard to come by, so I refer to the Anti-Defamation League's annual hate crime report for 2016. It states that,

Over the past 10 years (2007-2016), domestic extremists of all kinds have killed at least 372 people in the United States. Of those deaths, approximately 74% were at the hands of right-wing extremists, about 24% of the victims were killed by domestic Islamic extremists, and the remainder were killed by left-wing extremists.

An Islamaphobe would probably point out that, since Islamic attacks are disproportionately high for their population density (the Islamic faith represents just 0.9% of the American population, compared to a much higher number for white Christians), this proves that Islam breeds violence. However, when looked at from a purely socio-economic angle it’s clear that the ‘Islamic’ population also bears a much heavier load of marginalization and stress (due to racial profiling, poverty, uncertain immigration status, cultural conflicts, etc.) than the white Christian population does, in the U.S.

Plus, how does one explain the awkward fact is that many of the people claiming to be Islamic extremists don’t even know the fundamentals of their own (supposed) religion?  Lydia Wilson of the Nation writes that,

Many assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph; that fighters all over the world are flocking to the area for a chance to fight for this dream. But this just doesn’t hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate.

This is in line with what has been seen in European terror attacks, where the supposedly ‘Islamic’ instigators have often broken Islam’s most fundamental rules (adultery, drug use, theft, drinking and more) before turning to hard-line religion for their violent kicks.

So if not for religion or politics, what are these people fighting for? - or against?  This question might have been asked of instigator of the van attack at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin (2016), or the shooter at the Zurich mosque (2016). Like many modern lone-wolf terrorists, these mass killers rarely leave manifestos behind, making what went on in their heads before the attack even more difficult to explain - and therefore prevent. In fact, most lone wolf ‘terror’ attacks in Europe resemble nothing so much as an extreme emotional and/or psychological meltdown, rather than any sort of political campaign. 

Authorities are often left to deduce that there was a political motive for their murders, on the strength of their internet searches, reading materials, or a comment made to a friend.

The extremist ideologies that  all lone wolf killers tend to embrace tells us something even more important about them, though: whether by choice or by force, they were all living on the extreme edges of the social spectrum when they lost it.

The Breitscheidplatz attacker was a drug addict who’d been denied asylum. The shooter in the Zurich mosque attack was a jobless black man with an interest in the occult (that isn’t to blame the occult in any way, but rather to underline how far outside of the mainstream of Zurich culture he may have felt). Ibrahim El Bakraoui and his brother, two of the instigators of the Paris and Brussels attacks, were children of refugees who had previously carried out armed robberies. Say what you like about their choice of death, but these were all people who were not getting by well, in life.

That fact does not excuse their behaviour of course, but it may help to explain it.

Perhaps we should be asking an altogether different question: if such unstable and politically vague people are committing ‘terror’ attacks, are they even terrorists? And if not, what are they?

School of Fear

When we leave the word 'terror' out of the news reports altogether, what we are left with is a rising wave of random mass murders and murder-suicides. The media focuses mainly on those with an Islamic 'link' but these attacks are being executed by an array of people, from an array of backgrounds, with an array of rationales for their behaviour. What they do have in common, as we have already seen, is a sense of living on the extreme edges society. So if the number of mass killers is growing then the extreme ends of the social spectrum must be growing, as well.

These people also tend to be just the kind of marginal types that the welfare state was created to care for and rehabilitate. As that welfare state is eroded by ‘austerity measures’ and economic reforms, it’s perhaps unsurprising people at the edge are moving toward bleak ideologies that better encapsulate their personal experience of an unsupported (and un-supportive) reality - an ideology that can offer them some form of release, however self-destructive. 

American high schools are a nearly perfect microcosm of the social climate that Europe is living in, right now, under austerity. Little wonder that extremists in both environments are reacting in an almost identical way…

The stereotypical high school shooter is nearly identical to a lone wolf terrorist. He is usually a quiet, transient, outcast male. Someone who’s been rejected by classmates for failing to meet their high standards. He lacks family support and has been exposed to violence on a fairly regular basis, at home or school, or both. He has access to weapons.

When he self-destructs, taking as many peers down with him as he can, his actions seem more like a strike against the system as a whole rather than a demand to change any part of the school. This is nothing like true political terrorism, which is usually motivated by a twisted, idealistic kind of hope. Lone wolf terrorism is motivated by a pessimism so deep that the idea of going out in a ‘blaze of glory’ (as they see it) in the name of a cause - any cause whatsoever - seems better than simply being snuffed out
The students who have snapped and started shooting other students at random have all belonged to the statistically extreme minority of people which experiences most the drawbacks of being alive, but few of the benefits.The same could be said of lone wolf terrorists. Breivik's home life was characterized by the Guardian as being, "miserable from the start:" His depressive mother considered sending him to an orphanage, he tortured animals as a child and was laughed off by most of his peers as "pathetic" and a poseur.  

All these attackers have lashed out in a psychopathic and hateful way, but their backgrounds showed a long history displacement and rejection which might have contributed to causing that lashout. here have also been a few lone-wolf style attacks carried out by asylum-seekers who were denied the right to stay after a long time spent in Europe’s hellish asylum system, although these are the rarest sort of lone wolf attacks.

The above headline is from an Al Jazeera America report in 2014. There have been 150 high school shootings in the U.S. since 2013, or about one every week. Since 2000 there has also been a drastic reduction in funding for counselling services and the emphasis has been on installing screening and security devices instead. 
Since high school shootings have been happening for a long time in the U.S., they’ve been much more thoroughly researched by experts than the lone wolf terror attacks in Europe. So maybe then we can learn something about how to deal with lone wolf terrorism by looking at the way that high school shootings have been handled in the U.S. According to one report on Al Jazeera America, American experts advise against profiling students as would-be shooters:

‘“We strongly discourage schools from taking a list of characteristics and saying, ‘Oh, a child who likes video games or dresses in black or does this or that is somehow dangerous,’” said professor Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. “That’s absolutely what we want to avoid.”’

Yet both here in Europe and in the American high school system, profiling techniques and screenings are almost the only measures that are being used to prevent terror attacks. Advice such as, “Preventing school violence depends on a team of school professionals, including counsellors and other mental health experts, who are trained to identify and support troubled students who may be on a path to violence" is being widely ignored.

An Austere Disregard for Life

Interestingly, the implementation of austerity measures in Europe coincided with the rise in lone wolf 'terror attacks'.  Wikipedia defines "Austerity" as: “A set of economic policies imposed on economies such as: cutting the state's budget to stabilize public finances, restore competitiveness through wage cuts and create better investment expectations by lowering future tax burdens.”

Austerity is, and always has been, a dubious strategy for improving the economy. It has been criticized by virtually everyone with an interest in preserving human rights. In a 2016 report, the U.N. cited no less than 27 humanitarian concerns that it had regarding UK austerity measures, including:

  Discrimination in accessing health care services against refugees, asylum-seekers, refused asylum-seekers and Travellers.
  The lack of adequate resources provided to mental health services.
  Significant inequalities in educational attainment, especially for children belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities and children from low-income families which has the effect of limiting social mobility.
  Increasing university fees, which affect the equal access to higher education.

Even the London School of Economics, an organization which arguably prioritizes economic concerns above all else, has decried austerity in a 2015 working paper entitled, “Of Austerity, Human Rights and International Institutions."

But there are further, collateral effects that can’t be as easily measured as a loss in earnings can.  When people are unable to feed and house themselves, they're less able to reach out and help their neighbours and friends. So people who are already on the brink get even less support than they did, before. Again, that’s not to say that all the people on the brink will snap - and it’s certainly not an attempt to excuse them if they do - but if the tendency to snap is there, then the widespread hardships that are caused by widespread cutbacks seem likely to bring it out.

Austerity’s brutality is all the more disturbing because it is wholly unnecessary. The UK’s Tory party -  which has some of the most hard-line austerity policies outside of Greece - often claims that it cannot afford to fully fund the welfare state, yet it plans to spend 31 billion pounds on a new Trident missile system. So the state clearly has money to spend. 

But then again, maybe economics aren’t the point of austerity at all; maybe the suffering is. In an editorial from 2012, the Guardian reported that, back in 2010, "When Greece's then-premier, George Papandreou, begged for easier borrowing terms, he was told by Angela Merkel that the deal had to hurt."

For some leaders, austerity isn’t seen as an economic regime so much as an ideological one: forcing an antagonistic new paradigm on European culture is seen as a way to ‘toughen’ it up. In a sense, such leaders are crusaders on a quest, sacrificing human safety and lives to an inhuman deity of economic perfection. One might call them “economic jihadists” perhaps.   Are lone wolf terrorists merely paralleling the ‘dog-eat-dog’ paradigm that austerity has normalized in Europe since 2010? (Only in their case, it’s more like ‘underdog-eats-dog’).  

I'd hasten to add (for the nth time) that I don't defend the actions of lone wolf killers in any way. I am well aware that there are many more creative and inspiring ways of changing reality for the better. But I can't help but notice that the cutbacks that austerity has brought in have been so harsh, they're almost become an allegory for a killing spree. A person with homicidal, psychopathic tendencies might view such measures as a sign that violence is acceptable, not just a financial level, but also on an emotional, intellectual and physical one as well. The rise of 'terrorism' seems to mirror the rise in right wing extremism, and hate crimes in general, since 2010.

The above graphic is from a Department of Work and Pensions report in the UK. It shows that, over a 3-year period, 81,140 people in the UK died around the same time that they came off (or were thrown off) of their welfare benefits. . Although the report stresses that no inferences can be drawn from these statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests that starvation, exposure, illness and suicide played a large role in many such deaths.

Websites like Calum’s List record the names and deaths of people who have committed suicide after being denied benefits or sanctioned in the UK.  This suggests that, for each madman who starts shooting into a crowd, there are thousands of quietly-decaying people who have been crushed in silent, invisible ways by the austerity regime.

Going to Extremes

In one recent case from America, a young lone-wolf killer subscribed to both ‘jihadist’ and far-right  ideologies before he went postal and killed two of his flatmates. So now, no one knows which sect of terrorists is to blame for his actions.

In his case, it’s clear that the urge to kill has taken precedence over ideologies of any kind, but the story has barely been discussed in the media as of yet. 
One thing is for sure: austerity has risen in tandem with lone-wolf terrorism, so it stands to reason that reversing austerity could also potentially reduce lone wolf attacks. The over-funded and invasive counter-terrorism industry that has risen up since the 9/11 attack on New York in 2001 and the 7/7 bombing in London in 2005, hasn’t done much to stop the recent wave of terrorism in Europe. 

Media pundits keep on telling us that the Arab Spring in 2010 and its fallout in the Middle East are to blame for the spike in terrorism, but how does that explain the fact that right wing terror was already on the rise before 2010? Or that all forms of lone-wolf extremism are growing, not just ISIS-inspired ones?

It’s true that 2010 was the dawn of many problems in the Middle Eastern and Arab worlds. However, it was also the dawn of many problems right here in Europe, caused by the implementation of the unethical and inhumane austerity measures. That cannot be a coincidence. 

What we’re seeing right now may the real, long-term cost of Austerity: rising bigotry, rising extremism, rising  hatred, carnage and death. These are the costs that the number-crunchers left out of their calculations when deciding on our current economic plan. They may be the trends that Europeans can expect more of as long as they are living under a regime that disregards & destroys the things that make life seem like it's worth living... or saving.

When a student makes a threat, it’s really a symptom of frustration, that the student has encountered some kind of conflict or problem that he or she can’t resolve. The threat assessment team is really there to help resolve the problem so that there’s really no need for the threat.” 

-The FBI’s Mary Ellen O’Toole in her 2000 report on school shootings

No comments:

Post a Comment

All writing & images © A. E. Elliott (unless otherwise specified)

Search This Blog

My photo
Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, streetart, left-wing activism, social media trends and green issues. Other publications that I have written for include: Urban Challenger Blog, Siegesaeule, Shlur, Alternative Berlin, Sensanostra.