Terrorists and Mass Shooters: More Similar Than We Thought

A new survey shows that suicide terrorists and mass-homicide perpetrators tend to draw from the same pool of grievance-collecting young men

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Handout / Reuters

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (L), 26, is pictured in 2010 in Lowell, Mass., and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is pictured in an undated FBI handout photo

The horrific bombing of the Boston Marathon adds to the litany of tragic violence rocking the U.S. and the world. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, we’ve seen mass shootings in places from Switzerland to Serbia. Terrorist bombings have hit India, Turkey and remain endemic to the Middle East. We’ve tended to consider these types of acts — terrorism and mass shootings — as distinct. But recent scholarship suggest this dichotomy may be mistaken, a finding that could have significant impact on our approach to homeland security.

Previous theories have conjectured that suicide terrorists (those who carry out politically motivated mass violence intending to die in the process) are not actually suicidal in the psychiatric sense. “Those who planned and perpetrated the acts of 11 September 2001 would not conceptualise the acts as suicide but instead would perceive them as martyrdom, rationally underpinned by a legitimate struggle in a conflict of national and religious dimensions,” wrote Harvey Gordon, a forensic psychiatrist specializing in the Middle East, in 2002. But Adam Lankford, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, recently conducted a comprehensive comparison of 81 suicide terrorists and suicide mass shooters who struck in the U.S. from 1990 through 2010 and concludes that the role of politically motivated martyrdom in terrorists may not be as relevant as previously thought.

(MORE: The Boston Bombings: Should Cameras Now Be Everywhere?)

“For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are no more suicidal than the average soldier or terrorist who is committed to the cause and willing to risk his or her life to fight for it,” Lankford writes.”These explanations largely reject the relevance of personal problems to the behavior of suicide terrorists, preferring to almost exclusively attribute these attacks to group psychology, organizational dynamics, and/or broader ideological movements.” In fact, Lankford argues, apart from the superficial differences in the crimes they perpetrate, suicide terrorists and mass-homicide perpetrators in the U.S. tend to draw from the same pool of mostly male despondent, enraged, grievance-collecting individuals.

It’s important to note that Lankford’s research is limited to acts committed within the U.S., and future research would be needed across cultures and nonsuicidal attackers. But his work is significant because concerns about terrorism have resulted in surveillance of large communities of individuals owing to their religious or ideological beliefs. Instead, perhaps we should be more narrowly tailoring our threat assessments to a much smaller group of disaffected, enraged and troubled individuals, regardless of their personal faith, politics or social background.

(MORE: The Bombers’ Blunder That Helped Police Track Them Down)

Lankford’s analysis, consistent with that of the U.S. Secret Service in 2002, is that many of these individuals told someone or gave some indication of their plans. “Much like rampage and school shooters, the suicide terrorists in this study exhibited many common risk factors for suicide, such as social marginalization, family problems, work or school problems, and precipitating crises,” Lankford writes. “In addition, suicide terrorists, rampage shooters, and school shooters were almost equally likely to write an explanation or suicide note prior to striking, and they were almost equally likely to end up dead as a result of their attacks.”

We are still learning about the two men who committed the Boston bombing, but we may well wish to keep Lankford’s analysis in mind as we do. Initial reports are providing hints that the elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, might have displayed the social marginalization Lankford talks about. In 2009, he reportedly told photographer Johannes Hirn, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them,” and had a prior arrest record for domestic assault. At this time, less has emerged to suggest the younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was maladjusted although, as Jeffrey Kluger recently wrote in TIME, he may have been the weaker partner under his older brother’s influence. We still don’t know whether the brothers intended to die, although the fact that they did not attempt to leave Boston — and in fact, Dzhokhar was photographed walking calmly away from the scene after the bombing — suggests that escape was not a long-term plan for them. Tamerlan is reported to have had explosives strapped to his body when he was apprehended.

Undoubtedly, in the weeks to come, the lives of the brothers will be carefully dissected for clues about why they became motivated to lash out at innocent people. I suspect it will be tempting to focus on politics or religion, but perhaps ultimately it will have more to do with, as it often does, men whose rage can no longer be contained.

MORE: Ferguson: Can We Trust Psychological Research?

41 comments
jimmyray360
jimmyray360

Wack-O's no matter what religion. If you want to make a differece try martial arts, and find yourself. Everybody needs a direction to travel !

mrc9874
mrc9874

The only difference between the mass shootings and the Boston bombing is the is no a big National Rifle Association organization lobbying for "bombs" like it does for guns

jethrozelda
jethrozelda

I think psychiatrists generally agree that there is some catalyst that causes psychopathy. In the case of Muslim terrorists, it would seem to be a violent Wahhabist brand of Islam. In the case of school shooters, the catalyst could be anything. One thing that seems obvious is that the killers think fairly highly of themselves and are angry if they don't get the recognition to which they think they are entitled. They all seem to prefer dark glory to mediocrity.

hulagu
hulagu

now that you have run out of arguments to defend muslim terrorists, you are trying to equate it with "mass shootings"!!!

as if the death cult masquerading as a religion "islam" has nothing to do with muslim terrorists...! 

 

Shame on you sick *&(^%^S


punkakes13
punkakes13

they tried to find a picture to marginalize the guy

punkakes13
punkakes13

why did they put a picture where the man has a black eye? 

haha

hillarious

MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

Repeat after me: Islamic Terrorism. It's not that complicated: Muslims often act based on their intolerant and supremacist belief system, one that has taught hatred for the infidel.for 1400 years.. 

MoisesIssi
MoisesIssi

Christopher, what an excellent article.

Great job.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

GOMER PYLE WOULD HAVE SAID......"SURPRISE.......SURPRISE......SURPRISE!!!!!!!!!!!...........

valentine, military historian

almonjer
almonjer

This story is why the terrorists keep winning and we continue to have growing instances of school shootings. It is complete and total B,S weak minded psycho babble. The types of killers are unrelated and totally disconnected. One does it for political/religous reasons one because he is AMERICAN (certain American societal norms create school/mass shooters). How did this guy get this job-he is guaranteeing that both killers continue to grow and thrive...IF THE PUBLIC IS DUMB ENOUGH TO LISTEN TO HIM!

archFinder
archFinder

So....where do "male despondent, enraged, grievance-collecting individuals" go to resolve their issues in our society?   How do WE want to respond to these individuals?   Obviously ignoring them is not working.  Chicago and other inner city incubators of violence are full of these guys and have been for many years.  Still....nobody is talking about actually addressing the fundamental issue.  The flaw in our social fabric that lets these guys fester and become grotesque.  Shame on us for not facing up to our own responsibility!  

kellyjo5150
kellyjo5150

The Islamic terrorists get actual/psychological support from a significant segment of their co-religionists.  Do you not think that there were happy grins in mosques around the world after Boston...just as the Palestinians danced in the streets after 9-11.  Notice that none of the people who noted the elder increasing radicalization or violence reported him to the FBI ??  (Whether the FBI would have listened is another matter.) You may feel better lumping lone wolf crazies with Islamic inspired ones but there is a huge underlying difference.  The difference is that one day in the not too distant future we will experience a nuclear or chemical catastrophe at the hands of the Islamic crazies due to the millions who support their cause and billions of dollars backing them.  Lone wolf crazies will never be capable of that level of destruction.

rutnerh
rutnerh

Gun ownership under the 2 nd Amendment is no longer relevant, except to law enforcement or military users or rural residents. To all others it is either a hobby or a lethal tool in the hands of criminals. Hobbyist could get their kicks cheaper and safer by playing video games as most kids do. Just scrap A 2 like the currently dead A 1.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Terrorism is, by definition, at least an attempt at mass murder. In the suicidal version, it even closer to the corrupted mind of the mass murderer. The difference is in the environment. I never heard about a mother that sewed deep pocket in her son jeans in order to help him load maximum ammunition before going to his killing “mission”. I do know that happened more than once when the murderer needed an explosive belt optimized to kill as many bystanders as possible, in the name of Allah, Palestine or Free Iraq. There is also the different political environment. You’d jail anyone who tries to influence youngsters to go on a mass murder “expedition”, regardless of his motivation - but preaching Jihad is protected by an idiotic interpretation of the principle of free speech, equating the freedom to protest against unjust government with the (non)freedom to incite hatred against humans.

hummingbird
hummingbird

Both of them terrorize our bodies and minds so I see no distinction.

Piacevole
Piacevole

It looks as if disaffection is the first factor, and then an ideology of some sort is harnessed to provide the justification for a strike at society.  Because, of course, if someone is unhappy, it's got to be society's fault, and some society must pay.  The idea that societies are made up of individuals with lives of their own seems not to occur.

Introspection, the consideration of how one might contribute to one's own problems, doesn't seem to be one of the foremost things in these men's minds.


DrYogeshSharma1
DrYogeshSharma1

Why most of the terrorists are Muslims? There is some thing wrong with Islam. Actually democratic and secular nation are become nurseries of Islamic fanaticism. India, USA, UK, France etc., are become such type of democracies. Fanaticism must be curbed with tough laws. 

www.poemhunter.com/dr-yogesh-sharma

dryogeshsharma.wordpress.com

ChrisBayer
ChrisBayer

@jethrozelda We would probably do better to find that catalyst in their basic and early attachments--or weak attachments--than in ideology. Desperation can find a rationale in an ideology. But the desperation originates in mood. The article is pointing to young men who have emotionally lost their way--or never found it--in society. The stage for that is set early in life. Then, nothing saves them--their is no remediation of their spirit--and they create a fantasy of importance from an available ideology. We are entirely too focused on that ideology as a cause rather than recognizing it for what it is--an excuse.

saiyedshad
saiyedshad

@DrYogeshSharma1 It is very easy to criticise Islam Dr Sharma, I am not sure what you are a doctor of but i am sure not of history or politics. Suicide attacks is not new and definitely not exclusive to Muslims. I am sure you remember HINDU TAMIL TIGERS and their reign of terror and use of such tactics to meet a political end. Before blaming Muslims it will be a good idea to visit the cases of Hindu terrorists such as Sadhvi Pragya and Col Purohit both locked for HINDU terror. I request you do a bit of research on history and politics before you make any such comments and please have an open mind.

jethrozelda
jethrozelda

@ChrisBayer @jethrozelda Well psychopaths are different than other people. Most people won't turn into psychopaths regardless of catalyst or ideology, but radical Islam seems to be both a catalyst and a trigger. I don't see any reason not to at least investigate the culture in which they were raised and the ideology towards which they gravitated. It can't be denied that there is an inordinate amount of violence in the Muslim world, mostly among Muslims themselves. Something is not right.

ChrisBayer
ChrisBayer

@jethrozelda In this sense, we become like those killers--concerned with the trappings of power within an ideology rather than able to talk about the emptiness that underlies the violence.

jethrozelda
jethrozelda

@Hollywooddeed @MichaelStephenson Speaking for myself, just the ones who subscribe to the version of Islam that advocates mass murder. It seems to appeal to psychopaths and I don't much care for psychopaths.

MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

@saiyedshad @DrYogeshSharma1 Typical Islamic apologist. What Yogesh said is entirely correct. Islam is an intolerant supremacist religion that is directly responsible for the great majority of the world's terrorism.

ChrisBayer
ChrisBayer

@jethrozelda @ChrisBayer When we say "psychopath" we are talking about an impairment of the brain that mirrors pre-frontal lobe damage and may reflect reduced capacity in the amygdala. By definition, this is not simply a thinking error, ignorance or stupidity. It isn't created in an adult by ideas in the environment. It can be created by a number of environmental or genetic factors--all of them operating pre-birth or in child-hood, while the brain is developing. This being said, as a culture we like to find ideological blame--to both express our own ideology and label another ideology--and, in so doing, ignore a more complex reality.

ChrisBayer
ChrisBayer

@jethrozelda @ChrisBayer I'm not making excuses for them. I'm simply saying--as does the article--that their pathology has deep roots and cannot be explained in terms of being "bad guys", "contemptuous" or "zealots." They were all those things. But there was more--including lives where they were unable to sufficiently establish the most basic of healthy human connections, probably beginning at a very young age. Not good people to have arming themselves. In a better world, they would have been identified with problems and would not have been able to get guns. There are sick people out there.

jethrozelda
jethrozelda

@ChrisBayer @jethrozelda Look at these boys. They had the best we have to offer. The best education, sports, friends, lovers... so much to fill the emptiness. But that wasn't enough. Why? When the eldest declared he had no American friends, we automatically think it was because we didn't reach out. But we did. So was that an expression of loneliness or contempt? I lean towards contempt.

MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

@Hollywooddeed @MichaelStephenson Typical response from the Identity Politics crowd: accuse those with a different opinion of one flavor or another of bigotry. Your lack of substantive response is duly noted.  I doubt if you can help it.


See if you can brain this out for yourself.: Is your disagreement with me that you don't think the Boston bombing was inspired by Islam, or do you object to people like me mentioning an inconvenient truth? Give it some thought... it won't make any difference because people like you don't place much of premium on the truth or cognitive effort, but at least it will distract you for a while from your normal PC nitwittery.



Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@MichaelStephenson @Hollywooddeed Okay, then should I feel free to see all Catholics as child molesters, all Christians as bombers of federal buildings and murders of doctors?

Yeah, sure you're not afraid, xenophobe.

MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

@Hollywooddeed @MichaelStephenson @saiyedshad @DrYogeshSharma1 You don't read well, either...

"great majority of the world's terrorism".

Your bogus statistic referenced US incidents, and even there it is laughably inaccurate.  Muslims have been charged in about three-quarters of American terrorism and terrorism- support prosecutions since 9-11. Look it up, you silly little PC toad.  And try a site with a little credibility for a change.