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. These new lone wolf attackers seem to be targeting society as a whole

Statistics that break down European terror attacks by political and religious affiliation are hard to come by but, according to the Anti-Defamation League's annual hate crime report for 2016:

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.

Some would point out that 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). 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 and so on, than the white Christian population of the U.S. does.

Then again, many of the people claiming to be Islamic extremists don’t even seem to know the fundamentals of their own religion, which is the least one would expect of them.  Lydia Wilson of the Nation writes,

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 [Islamic extremist] prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate.

So if not for religion or politics, what are these people fighting for? - or against?  In fact, most lone wolf ‘terror’ attacks in Europe resemble an extreme emotional / psychological meltdown, rather than any sort of political attack. Authorities are often left to deduce that there was a political motive for these attacks by looking at internet searches, reading materials, or a comment made to a friend because they rarely leave statements of intent behind.

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 people were not getting by 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 politically-vague people are committing ‘terror’ attacks, are they even terrorists? If not then what are they?

School of Life

What most of these so-called 'terrorists' had in common was that they were all living on the extreme edges of society when they lost it. In fact, 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 by people on the fringe. The media focuses mainly on those with an Islamic link, these days, but an array of people have been committing similar crimes, with or without a link to the Islamic faith. If we assume these mass-murders are purely random, then it stands to reason that they may be on the rise because the sorts of conditions that make people into murderers (such as mental stress, poverty, bigotry and bullying) are on the rise. The economic austerity program in Europe is contributing far more clearly to the rise of such conditions than any other religion or ideology. 

As the welfare state is eroded by ‘austerity measures’ and other economic reforms, people at the edges of society are moving toward bleak ideologies that better describe their unsupported (and un-supportive) realities. Without that erosion, however, there would be no need for them to go to extremes.  Extremist ideologies all offer some form of instant release, no matter how self destructive; this must seem appealing compared to an endless grind of shutting up and putting up, with no end in sight. While extremist ideologies don't appeal to the majority of us, they must seem tempting to the unstable few who have been denied access to other last-resort options (food banks, welfare, mental health support, emergency housing, a job).

Interestingly enough, American high schools in the 1990s were an almost perfect microcosm of the social climate that Europe is entering, under the austerity program. Perhaps it's little wonder that extremists in both environments have been reacting in a similar way.

The stereotypical high school shooter is also similar to a lone wolf terrorist: 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, it seems more like a strike against the system as a whole, than a demand to change anything specific. This is unlike true political terrorism which is usually motivated by a twisted kind of idealistic hope. 

The students who have snapped in America have all belonged to the statistically-extreme minority of kids that experienced all the drawbacks of being at school, but none of the benefits.The same could be said of lone wolf terrorists in European society. Oslo shooter Breivik's home life was characterized 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 a "pathetic" poseur.  

His was a typical background for mass murderers, revealing a long history displacement and rejection which might have contributed to causing his final, lethal disconnect. There 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. These are the rarest sort of lone wolf 'terror' attacks, but they fit the pattern and highlight just how quickly man-made suffering can lead to mass murderer.

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 has been. 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. Professor Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. advises 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. 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 the only measures that are being used to prevent random mass-murders. Cornell goes on to add,

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." 

The advice of experts like him is being widely ignored, though, both in schools and in the adult society that school is designed to prepare kids for.

Economic Jihad

The implementation of austerity measures in Europe has risen more or less in tandem with lone wolf 'terror attacks'.  So it is potentially as much to blame for those attacks as ideological extremism is. Yet few leaders seem to be questioning the need for austerity, even as it has been criticized by virtually everyone with an interest in society and human rights. The London School of Economics decried austerity in a 2015 working paper entitled, “Of Austerity, Human Rights and International Institutions."  And 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 

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 invisible ways by the austerity regime. 

Clearly there are further, collateral damages from austerity 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. Under austerity people who are already on the brink get even less support than they ever did before. 

That’s not to say that all the people on the brink will snap - and it’s certainly not an attempt to excuse them when they do - but if the tendency to snap is there, then the widespread hardships that are caused by austerity do seem likely to bring it out.

Austerity’s brutality is all the more disturbing because it is wholly unnecessary. The UK’s Conservative 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. At the same time, it plans to spend 31 billion pounds on a new Trident missile system. So clearly, it has money to spend. 

But then, maybe economics aren’t the point of austerity at all: maybe suffering is. In an editorial from 2012, the Guardian reported back in 2010 that, "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. These leaders seem to be forcing an antagonistic new paradigm on European culture as a way to ‘toughen it up'. In this respect, they are like crusaders on a quest, sacrificing human safety and lives to the unattainable deity of economic perfection. One might call them economic jihadists, in fact. 

For ordinary people watching them from ground level, such brutally austere fiscal measures might seem like a sign that violence is acceptable, now... not just a financial level but on an emotional, intellectual and physical one. as well.  Perhaps lone wolf terrorists merely paralleling the ‘dog-eat-dog’ paradigm that our leaders have helped to normalize in a more grassroots and immediate way.

What we’re seeing right now may the real, long-term cost of Austerity: rising bigotry, rising extremism, rising suicides and mass murder. These are the costs that the number-crunchers left out of their calculations when deciding on our current economic regime. Europeans may need to prepare for more of the same, as long as they are living under a regime that disregards & destroys the things that make life seem like it's worth living.

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


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