It has become altogether too predictable. Another mass shooting and the politicians get in line to offer their thoughts and prayers. They assure us that their hearts go out to the victims and their families. They conflate the tragedy into a talking point. Republicans complain that President Obama refuses to use the words Islamic Terrorism.
The news is full of as much non-information as can be gathered as the investigation is barely begun. On the one side, we hear that it is too soon to politicize this tragedy, and on the other, that something must be done, now. News organizations and politicians conflate the tragedy so that what is arguably a hate crime becomes about ISIS. What concerns me is that by using interchangeable terms and conflating ideology, we create an environment which perpetuates non-action. Mass murder. Spree killer. Serial killer. Islamic terrorist. Regardless of the psychology of the crime, it is reduced to a sociopathic Islamic terrorist and we shrug our shoulders and move on. There is a distinct difference between all of these and by calling the crime what it is, we can begin to address the root causes and perhaps, hold our politicians accountable.
First of all, let’s address the last point first. Mental health is frequently a factor in criminal behavior. it is not usually the primary factor. Many persons who commit violent crimes have a diagnosable mental illness, but more do not. It is instinctive for people to see evidence of a horrific crime and automatically assume the perpetrator is insane, or mentally ill. Insanity is a purely legal term and not used clinically, so I’ll leave that alone. What we do know, is that many people commit terrible crimes for no reason that we are ever able to discover.
Many people say murder is murder. Who cares why? How the incident is defined matters. A lot. It matters because without understanding the basis of the crime, we are unable to effectively guard against it. Serial killing is defined as three or more victims spaced out over time. There is always a build up of tension—the killer’s motivation for the act may vary, but there is an obsessional need that builds over time—followed by the actual crime. The act is then followed by a cooling off period. Most serial killers eventually begin to have shorter and shorter cooling off periods and as they progress and deteriorate, make the mistakes which are usually the only way we can stop them. There are many other factors in analyzing a serial killer but for this discussion, it is simply how many and over time. What is critical for this discussion, is the psychology. A serial killer is fulfilling an internal need or desire. They are not driven by hate, or anger, but rather some internal fantasy.
A spree killer is, fortunately, the most rare of the multiple murderers. A spree killer involves two or more victims in one event over multiple locations. The event can take time; think Andrew Cunanan. His spree lasted for three months, but was considered to be one event. There is no cooling off period. Whatever is driving the behavior continues until satisfied. The spree killer is frequently motivated by the excitement they derive from their behavior.
A mass killer is characterized as having four or more victims, but one location in one event. Think Columbine or Sandy Hook. There is no cooling off period and the behavior is rarely repeated as the perpetrator is frequently dead at the end of the episode. What distinguishes mass killers and terrorists from spree or serial killers are the desire to inflict harm on a group of people. The mass killer frequently feels anger at a specific group for some real or imagined insult. The anger is usually targeted at a specific population i.e., classmates or co-workers, but includes a specificity to the targeting.
All of these crimes can be considered terrorism in the sense that they create fear. If we match the profile, we fear becoming the next victim of a serial killer. If a spree or mass killer, we wonder if someday we might not enter the wrong place at the wrong time and become an inadvertant victim.
Terrorism is unique as it does not target a specific person, but rather a political ideal. The terrorist wants to create a climate of fear, but they are driven by a conflict of ideals, a belief that their way is right, that they have been harmed by our country as exemplified by ideology.
The attacks of 9/11 did not target a specific individual or location because of the group found there, but rather targeted this country and its political ideology. In that case, yes, they were Islamic extremists, but demanding the use of Islam when discussing terror conflates the issue of terrorism more broadly—the Baader Meinhof group in the 60’s, the Japanese Red Brigade, and more recently, Boko Haram in Africa to name a few—to a specific religion, ethnicity, and region as a focus for our fear.
The events in Orlando last night are being characterized as Islamic terrorism by some because the perpetrator is Muslim, and claims a tie to ISIS. None of this has as yet been confirmed.
When politicians and wanna-be politicians conflate issues to a few buzzwords and demand that others do so as well, discussion is impossible. What was a hate crime targeted at the LGBTQ community, during Pride Week, is stretched into a case of Islamic extremism as it makes it easy for our leaders to push the issue aside and get away with offering only thoughts and prayers. It may well be that the perpetrator is motivated by ISIS, and may be a Muslim, but reducing the discussion to his group membership ignores all of the other factors involved.
If we can only talk in slogans and buzzwords, and make the issue simplistic, politicians then are able to offer simplistic solutions and offer themselves as the only solution to something that is complex, nuanced, and requiring an understanding of the wider issues before we can even begin to locate a solution.