The parallels between school shooters and terrorists

Staying with the Lewis Carroll theme for a bit, in 1876 the English writer penned the poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. The ‘Snark’ was described as follows:

  • Some have feathers and bite, and some have whiskers and scratch.
    It also sleeps late into the day. While the snark is very ambitious, and has very little sense of humor, it is very fond of bathing machines, and constantly carries them about wherever it goes. The snark is a peculiar creature that cannot be captured in a commonplace way. Above all, courage is required during a snark hunt. The most common method is to seek it with thimbles, care, forks, and hope. One may also “threaten its life with a railway share” or “charm it with smiles and soap”.

All rather silly, isn’t it? The word has also entered the English language as a noun meaning “someone or something that is difficult to track down.” As such it is a perfect metaphor for attempts to come up with a terrorist profile. Not that this has stopped many people from fruitlessly trying to do so.

In a similar vein researchers are endeavouring to create a template for school mass shooters (a problem that vexes the US in particular because of its insane gun laws). According to Peter Langman, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania, “there’s no one thing, [but] maybe a couple of dozen different things that come together to put someone on the path to committing an act of mass violence.” Among this ‘couple of dozen different things’ are:

  • Most shooters in these cases had led difficult lives
  • Many struggle with psychological problems
  • Many of the shooterswere feeling desperate before the event
  • Feeling like an outcast at school may also play a role

This may strike some as a useful list of factors and even wade into the category of ‘predictive’ but they are not. You see, the problem is what I identified in my first book, The Threat from Within, back in 2015. None of these are either necessary (i.e. they must be present) or sufficient (i.e. they are enough to explain why shooters do what they do). We really are no further ahead in this regard.

Another way of looking at this is to consider false positives and false negatives. A false positive is when a factor is present and yet the individual does not go on to do the act predicted (i.e. school shooter or terrorist). For instance, millions of people struggle with psychological problems but do not become either mass killers or violent extremists. Hence the factor is not really predictive.

A false negative is the opposite. This happens when a characteristic you don’t expect turns up. For instance there is this myth that all terrorists are poorly educated. But as a recent ICSR study on Saudi jihadis (and my book) pointed out, many are in fact highly educated. Good education would be a false negative in this case.

I have no doubt that the search for the elusive checklist of indicators of mass shooters and terrorists will go on, as unproductive and useless as it is. I am fairly certain that none of the work on precursor elements (age, gender, socio-economic status, etc.) have had any impact on those who play a role in stopping school killers and terrorists. I wait to be proven wrong.

The quest for THE list of things to look for is akin to the hunting of the Snark. And just as Lewis Carroll’s beast was fictional so are claims to have found the ultimate answer to why.

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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