The parallels between US school shootings and terrorism

There is not a lot left to say about what happened in a Florida school yesterday on Valentines’s Day of all days. Another mass shooting, this time with at least 17 dead, in a country where mass shootings are all too common (one of my colleagues tweeted that this is the 18th school shooting in the US so far this year and we are only in February).  It will not be the last, I am afraid, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The US is clearly an outlier among advanced nations when it comes to the number of high-powered weapons and the number of mass casualty events.

I have no intention of wading into the gun debate. It’s not that I don’t have strong feelings in this regard but rather that that particular train left the station a long time ago.  The two sides on this issue are so deeply entrenched that dialogue and compromise are unfortunately highly unlikely.

No, what I want to focus on is whether this particular killing was preventable.  This is usually a matter of hindsight and is hence not always reliable, let alone 20/20 – there are simply times when we simply don’t know enough to make a decision – but in this case there was ample information that, if acted upon, could have been used to stop the young expelled student from turning his semi-automatic weapon on his fellow schoolmates.

From what I have read in the media so far the alleged shooter now in custody gave off all kinds of indications that he was bent on carrying out an act of violence. He owned and bragged about lots of guns. He liked to kill animals.  He was expelled for having bullets in his knapsack.  Fellow students were afraid of him and remarked that if anyone were to do an act like this it would be him.  Yes he was an  orphan and may have had mental issues but we must be careful in ascribing a causal relationship between these aspects and what happened.   In the end warning signs seemed to be everywhere.  And yet no one in a position of authority did anything and now 17 people are dead (with more to come possibly).

So, why was nothing said?  Was it out of fear?  Was it anxiety?  Did no one want to get involved?  These are all good questions, ones without answers perhaps. But what strikes me in this case is that there were ample precursors and indicators that were not picked up on.  And this is exactly what happens as well in virtually all cases of terrorist radicalisation to violence.  Those that go on to commit acts of terrorism almost always betray their intentions through their behaviours and their attitudes.  Some call this phenomenon of overt signs ‘leakage’.   Just like in mass shootings however, people tend not to act on what they observe and hear.  As a result people die.

What, then, is the solution?  It would help if people could educate themselves on what to notice and when to pass on what they know.  If we did so we could prevent acts of mass violence.  Yes there would be times when action is taken on people who never really had any plan to do something, whether we are talking about terrorism or mass shootings. But is it not better to be safe than sorry?  Aren’t small violations of privacy and civil rights worth it if we can save lives?  Do you want to live a lifetime of regret thinking that if you had only said something at the right time others would not have died in a hail of bullets, or under the wheels of a car, or blown to pieces by an IED?

Acts of mass violence will occur regardless of what we do or don’t do.  Nevertheless there are occasions on which a timely tip can make a difference.  It is up to us to make that difference.

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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