April 20, 1999: Massacre at Columbine high school

On this day in 1999 two teenagers shot 12 students and a teacher at Columbine high school, wounding 24 others, before turning their weapons on themselves.

LITTLETON, UNITED STATES – Mass shootings are unfortunately a common occurrence for our southern neighbours. They are horrific crimes, to be sure, but are they always incidents of terrorism?

The United States has a real problem with guns. 2020 alone was the deadliest year in terms of gun violence despite the fact that people were urged to stay home due to the global pandemic. If people aren’t safe from their gun-toting neighbours in relative isolation, when are they?

This has been an issue for Americans for as long as they have existed as a country. Despite constant effort by lobby groups to reduce widespread access to guns, especially automatic weapons, support for the ‘right to bear arms‘ is surprisingly strong.

Access to automatic weapons especially makes mass shootings particularly easy to carry out. But in the wake of these all-too-common attacks, pundits and so-called ‘experts’ are often all too quick to declare them acts of terrorism, even if they are likely nothing of the sort.

As a reminder, the definition of terrorism I find most accurate is a serious act of violence with intent to kill or severely maim and it must be motivated primarily by an ideology. Simply being a violent act is not enough to qualify as terrorism.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If we call everything terrorism then nothing is terrorism. This may be a hard pill for people to swallow, especially when an act is particularly heinous. Case in point:

On this day in 1999

Two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, entered Columbine High School in Littleton, United States, essentially armed to the teeth. They opened fire on their fellow students, taunting many before they killed them, eventually killing 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. A further 24 were wounded in the attack.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, many referred to it as terrorism citing rampant bullying as a possible motive for the attack. While bullying can certainly effect one’s psyche negatively (and even lead one to commit a violent act), feeling victimized is not an ideology.

Everyone around me got shot and I begged him for 10 minutes not to shoot me. And he just put the gun in my face and started laughing and saying it was all because people were mean to him last year.

Survivor of the attack

Motive unclear

Within weeks, even more motivations were suggested, ranging from mental illness to violent video games to Marilyn Manson’s music. Some even suggested that the attacks were neo-Nazi in nature as the attack occurred on April 20th, the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Though Harris did indeed praise the Nazis in his journal, it is unlikely that this admiration motivated the attack.

Three months after the massacre, the FBI concluded that both shooters likely suffered from mental illnesses, Klebold being depressive and suicidal and Harris exhibiting typical traits of a psychopath.

We can agree, however, that this was more than your typical school shooting. The perpetrators had planned this for over a year, dreaming of carrying out the worst attack on American soil since the Oklahoma bombing (a goal they thankfully fell far short on).

Yes, this was a horrific and senseless attack that took many innocent lives. But with no ideological, political or religious motivation in sight, we cannot call it terrorism.

Read More Today in Terrorism

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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