Here is yet another day of sadness and anger after yet another mass shooting. Once again, it seems, all we are going to do is offer “thoughts and prayers” and we all know how effective that is.
The first thing we need to do is to get our terminology straight. You can’t make a proper prescription without an accurate diagnosis. We absolutely have to stop this brown person equals terrorism and white person equals random unpredictable event. Neither is true.
If I can make a modest proposal, let’s make “terrorism” a very specific kind of event. We should define terrorism as the result of an actual conspiracy among several people with real connections to a political or religious group that uses violence as part of it’s strategy.
A mafia hit, gang violence are not “terrorism.” A guy with an ISIS flag in his room, someone who read Al Queda propaganda online are not “terrorists.” Why? Diagnosis and prescription. If “terrorism” consists of group conspiracies, then it becomes an intelligence and policing function to prevent it. We need to identify and penetrate terrorist cells, much in the same way we try to prevent organized crime violence. We certainly won’t be 100% successful, but at least we know in what direction to apply our resources. I think we would be able to reasonably judge our successes and failures in this area and be able to learn from those efforts. We can work hard to break the connections within the organizations.
So-called lone wolf attacks are an entirely different phenomenon, I think. Yes, at some level they can be religiously or politically motivated, but they are not actually connected in any real way to an organization. Something inside them makes them decide that killing people is some way to solve something.
This makes psychology and gun control more critical in thinking about and hopefully preventing these kind of situations.
When I say psychology, I mean psychological research. While it might be said that anyone who decides to more or less randomly kill strangers must be “mentally ill” in some way, it does not seem to be the case that mass shooters are actively psychotic. It does not seem that the “bad voices” are pushing them to action. I don’t know what is pushing them and I don’t think anyone does. I have no earthly idea of how to conduct research this area, but we need to do something.
When commits a mass killing in the name of Islam, we often speak of “radicalization,” but I think it is a mistake to limit our thinking to that. Whether it is ISIS propaganda, or Info Wars (Pizza-Gate) or a person’s own obsessive thoughts, something moves them to think that killing people is the answer to whatever problems they see. If we could figure out what that “something” is, perhaps we could prevent some of these incidents.
Even if we can figure out that “something” it will probably be very difficult to identify such people. And we certainly can’t arrest people because they have some psychological profile, but before they have taken any concrete action. Perhaps community mental health systems might be helpful here, depending on what can be found out.
One thing is pretty clear, the effects of the criminal justice system are not useful in this issue. Many of the people who carry out these attacks commit suicide and perhaps most expect to die during the incident. So, threatening the death penalty is probably irrelevant. It may be that life imprisonment is actually more of deterrent, but who knows?
Since it is unlikely that we will ever be able to perfectly predict when someone might go on a killing spree, it seems logical that we should at least prevent people from acquiring highly efficient means of killing lots of people. Automatic firearms, bomb making supplies, precursors to chemical weapons. Can we restrict these things perfectly? Of course not, but every time we prevent someone from acquiring means of mass killing, we save lives. I’ll take my chances with a knife attacker.
It could be argued that radicalized people join terrorist organizations, which of course is true. But our efforts should be against the organization and at that point the motivations of individuals is more or less irrelevant. If we can break the organization, the individuals presumably get swept up.
This is obviously a problem we need to confront as a society. We can’t keep waking up to find so many of our fellow citizens dead.