Fitting the profile

Another mass shooting in the US.  Another nation in grief.  Another set of questions on Why?  Another series of calls to prevent future incidents.  Why can’t the (fill in the blank – government/academe/science/police) profile people who engage in mass killings and stop them before they shoot?  What is so hard about all this?  After all, they must be crazy so let’s just focus on the mentally ill, right?

Unfortunately, like most things in life, the profiling of mass murderers is more complicated than that.  An article in today’s NYT brought the point to bear again (see it here).  This phrase, in particular, struck me as very important:

“What seems telling about the killers, however, is not how much they have in common but how much they look and seem like so any others that don’ t inflict harm.”

The usual suspects – mental illness, loner, lack of success (in life, love and labour), etc. – are not helpful in predicting who walks into a college/theatre/army base and fires at multiple victims.  So many people suffer from the above ills and yet so few ever take the lives of innocents.  In other words, there are way too many “false positives”: people who fit some kind of profile but who do not act in ways condemned by society.

As with mass murder so with violent radicalisation.  I am dismayed that our collective understanding – as portrayed in the media – has not advanced much in the last decade.  We still hear officials, who frankly should know better as they are briefed regularly by professionals who have made it their vocation to understand this phenomenon, use phrases like disaffected, marginalised, self-radicalised and mentally ill to describe citizens who adopt violent ideologies.  None of these are necessary conditions, or even frequent for that matter.  And we still hear of attempts to study radicalisation in order to produce predictive modeling.  None of this is helpful since it misleads the public, leading to a lot of false reporting and in addition results in poor policy responses.  For instance, I am aware of those who advocate job creation and reduced poverty, both of which are admirable goals by the way, as solutions to violent radicalisation.  They are nothing of the sort.

I get the need to come to grips with those who forsake everything we have and stand for to plot to kill their neighbours or join the Islamic State.  We want to know why even if the why is not knowable (or is there are too many whys to get any decent generalisations).  And I get the knee-jerk default that they are different.  But the data do not support these views.  In Canada at least, those who become terrorists are usually as normal as can be (accepting that there is a wide range of normalcy).  We cannot explain this away and neatly compartmentalise the extremists as alienated mentally disturbed people who just never fit in.  It  doesn’t work that way.

So we are stuck with trying to identify behaviours (not backgrounds or socioeconomic circumstances) that MIGHT lead to violence, but then again might not.  We can take solace in one thing though.  In Canada these events ( mass murder and violent radicalisation) are rare and likely to remain so.  We still need to confront them (and not dismiss them as “stuff” as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush just did – see it here) but there is no need to panic.  I cannot speak for the mass shooters, but our agencies will get most of the violently radical.  And as Thanksgiving is just around the corner that is something to be grateful for.


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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