In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings last week, speculation about the killers’ motives was, not unreasonably in the circumstances, rife. Were the killings related to a workplace dispute – to a personal or professional grievance – or were they terroristic in nature? US President Barack Obama was careful to differentiate the two possibilities, to caution against jumping to conclusions in the absence of firm evidence either way, and to suggest that, in the meantime, Americans might like to consider whether the prevalence of gun-crime in the land of the free may be more than tangentially related to the widespread availability of, um, guns.
All of which was perfectly reasonable. But as it becomes clear that Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were indeed inspired by the ideology and example of Islamic State, it is worth just pausing to ask whether the distinction between political violence and personal grievance (or, more broadly, state-of-mind) is helpful in the case of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism. Clearly there is a difference between political terrorism and what is sometimes described as ‘going postal’; but my strong sense is that personal and political grievance are increasingly difficult to disentangle, and that this difficulty may tell us something important about the nature and prevalence of ‘home-grown’ terrorism.
To conduct even a brief survey of recent terrorist atrocities is to be confronted with a complex picture in which radicalisation, identity-seeking, troubled pasts and mental health problems combine and combust to spectacular effect. Man Haron Monis (the Sydney siege); Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (the Ottawa shootings); Mohammed Merah (the Toulouse and Montouban shootings); Arid Uka (the Frankfurt Airport shooting); Joseph Stack (the Austin suicide attack): all of these figures were psychologically fragile as well as politically motivated. Nor is this an exhaustive list – far from it; the interplay of mental instability and political and religious extremism is now so mapped in to our current experience that to comment on it can seem otiose. Certainly no one would be at all surprised if it was revealed that, say, Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado two weeks ago, has some very ugly inner demons.
This is in no way to try to ‘explain away’ acts of terroristic violence, or exculpate their perpetrators on the grounds that they were mentally unwell. That would be a ridiculous thing to do, as well as an insult to the vast majority of mentally ill people who do not (and will never) commit acts of violence, terroristic or otherwise. (In fact the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.) One of the most unhelpful and reductive debates of recent times was the one that broke out in the wake of the murders carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011. While for some commentators Breivik’s slaughter of his fellow Norwegians was largely without political significance – the act of a lunatic, more or less – for others his aims and motivations, as set out in his sprawling manifesto, were plainly ideological and any suggestion to the contrary was an act of political mystification. However, and as I pointed out at the time, both positions were essentially non sequiturs: clearly it is possible to be mentally ill and politically motivated, just as it is possible to be mentally well and adopt a ‘crazy’ ideology. An atrocity doesn’t cease to have political meaning because it is committed by someone under psychological stress.
Nor, I think, should we allow ourselves to be sidetracked by a simplistic debate about the context of political violence, as happened when the Grand Mufti of Australia suggested that the Paris shootings were due in part to the racism and Islamophobia experienced by Muslims in France and elsewhere. Those sentiments, and the noisy denunciations of them from Josh Frydenberg, Jacqui Lambie and others, again managed to miss the important issue, which is not whether the context or the warrant is responsible for the act of terror – clearly, both are – but the extent to which, and in what ways, these phenomena combine in the modern context. The interplay between state-of-mind and receptivity to ideology and between ideology and violent action is not, or should not be, in doubt. The question is whether this interplay is especially relevant to radicalisation and terrorism in the twenty-first century. If, as seems to be the case, lone wolf terrorism (LWT) is increasing, to what extent is the interpenetration of personal and political factors responsible?
Some of that increase is tactical, of course. Islamic State, like al-Qaeda, combines a central message of political violence with a decentralised approach to carrying it out; it’s a franchise, not a single organisation. Anwar al-Awlaki, the highly influential American-born preacher based (until his death from a drone strike) in Yemen, was explicit on this matter, writing in the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire that it is ‘better to support the prophet by attacking those who slander him than it is to travel to land [sic] of Jihad like Iraq or Afghanistan’. This was echoed recently by Australian jihadi Neil Prakash, an Islamic State recruiter in Syria. ‘Now is the time to rise, now is the time to wake up,’ said Prakash in a propaganda video; ‘You must start attacking before they attack you.’ Clearly, any attempt to analyse the nature of home-grown terrorism needs to treat such blunt directives as a central part of the overall context.
But it’s also clear that much of the radicalisation occurs at a deeply personal level. According to a 2015 report from Georgetown University, 63% of domestic US LWT attacks between the 1960s and 1990s were carried out by citizens affiliated to particular groups. Since then there has been a marked decrease (over 20%) in that statistic, with the decline in group-affinity closely correlating to the rise of the internet as ‘the primary focus of radicalisation’. In other words, it seems that the worldwide web is not only a means to radicalisation but also an important factor in the emergence of an individualised form of it. As the report’s authors put it: ‘The expansion of mass media and social networking has enabled LWTs to proclaim their individual extremist views without attaching themselves to pre-existing groups.’
In this respect Breivik really is of interest. Almost certainly a pathological narcissist (see Anne Manne’s book The Life of I for a good account of this diagnosis), he was determined to project himself into the world in a manner in keeping with his own high self-regard. His massive manifesto was cobbled together from bits of rightwing commentary, and the result, though recognisably fascist in its disdain for minorities and ‘cultural Marxism’, was a singular (and deeply peculiar) belief-system. But as bizarre as Breivik was and is, he’s also a recognisable type – the ‘damaged’ individual whose desire to be special and to be a part of something bigger leads him to a spectacular act of violence in the name of a grandiose political vision.
Could it be that we have entered a period in which the lack of ‘meaning’ available to young adults in liberal-capitalist societies – societies to which the old stabilities of church and community are increasing irrelevant, and in which consumerism and the global media are now the principal means of identity-creation – is answered by the certainties puked up by groups like Islamic State? Certainly I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that anomie and alienation are manuring the ground for terrorism and that the phenomenon of Islamic extremism is one in which issues of identity (personal and group) are working themselves out. Again, no exculpation is implied in this hypothesis; the warrant for oppression and murder set out in the ‘teachings’ of IS is self-evidently wicked (and, let’s be clear: it is from IS and its analogues that the greatest terror threat comes, Breivik and Dear notwithstanding). But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that a growing number of individuals find in extremist ideology the self-cure for their lack of a meaningful existence. Increasingly, it seems, the modern terrorist is a lone wolf in search of a pack.
Debates about whether this or that atrocity owe more to the black dog of mental illness or the black flag of Islamic extremism are almost always reductive and unhelpful. Terrorists, whatever their mental state, have to get their warrant from somewhere, and it is pretty clear where Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook got theirs. But a comprehensive approach to terrorism must go beyond (and behind) the battlelines. It has to include a thorough analysis of why ‘the values’ so often invoked by politicians and commentators are falling so flat on so many ears.