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.

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“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.

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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.

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