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Matthew Harwood: The Fear of Lone-Wolf Terrorism Rises

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

He was undoubtedly one of the worst "lone-wolf" terrorists in modern history. On July 22, 2011, after trying to take out Norway's political leadership in Oslo with a car bomb and killing eight people, Anders Breivik boarded a ferry wearing a homemade police uniform and took it to a nearby island where he murdered another 69 people, most of them teenagers attending a youth camp run by the country's Labour Party. Hunting them down methodically, as if he had all the time in the world, he acted in the coldest of cold blood. Some of them were shot in the head at point-blank range. The killer, the "wolf" of that moment, committed his act, he claimed, to stop the "Islamicization" of his country. He was also against "feminism," "cultural Marxism," "Eurabia," and his country's ruling Labour Party.

Just stop for a moment and try to imagine the response here, had such a thing happened. I guarantee you that, in security terms, our world would have been changed in major ways. It would have grown even more controlled, surveilled, and militarized. More money would have flowed into the coffers of the national security state. More private contractors would have been hired. You know the routine. In the U.S., smaller versions of such attacks, like the Boston Marathon bombing, have galvanized the country and so helped further expand the national security apparatus, as well as the locking down of ever more places and things. In these years, fevers of panic about terror and terrorists have repeatedly swept the country. Put another way, otherwise pathetic individuals who would normally have no way of affecting our American world turn out to be remarkably capable of altering our lives and society in major ways.

Norway is a small country. One in four Norwegians reported knowing "someone affected by the attacks," including the prime minister at that time, Jens Stoltenberg. Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that Stoltenberg insisted "the Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness, and greater political participation" and ordinary citizens refused to react in the American fashion. In the wake of an "incident" that might have transformed any society, a madman's cold-blooded political slaughter of innocents, Norwegians, individually and en masse, chose not to panic or let their world be altered by Breivik's horrific acts. They did not build a greater counterterror security structure; they did not change their laws or create special terror legislation; they did not try Breivik in some special way; they did not even close their parliament and ring it with fortifications. They were determined not to let Breivik deprive them of the openness they valued. They exhibited neither hysteria nor bloodlust. It was, in our world, the bravest of collective acts, stunning in its restraint.

If only we Americans could say the same. Now, as TomDispatch regular Matthew Harwood of the ACLU writes, alarm over what is supposed to be our latest terror threat -- "lone-wolf" attacks -- is on the rise here in the U.S, and is more or less guaranteed to change our society for the worse. Though curiously, our most notorious "lone-wolf" killer, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who murdered 16 Afghans -- nine of them children -- and wounded six more in a night of cold-blooded mayhem in Kandahar, Afghanistan, caused hardly a ripple here. All that's now needed is a high-profile lone-wolf attack in "the homeland," and it doesn't have to be anywhere near as devastating as Breivik's or Bales's. (Most lone-wolf operations, as Harwood indicates, are not especially effective or destructive.) In the meantime, while the lone wolf makes his (and yes, they are mostly men) appearance in our American world of national security fear and hysteria, there have been no serious attempts to put the exceedingly modest dangers involved in perspective. So TomDispatch is proud to have what may be the first such article of our moment. Tom

The Lone-Wolf Terror Trap
Why the Cure Will Be Worse Than the Disease
By Matthew Harwood

The shadow of a new threat seems to be darkening the national security landscape: the lone-wolf terrorist.

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"The lone wolf is the new nightmare," wroteWashington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently, and the conservative pundit wasn't alone in thinking so. "I really see [lone wolves] as being a bigger threat than al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State, or the al-Qaeda franchises," Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor, told VICE News. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, appearing on "Meet the Press," Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The thing that I think keeps me up most at night [is] this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected."

You could multiply such statements many times over. There's only one problem with the rising crescendo of alarm about lone wolves: most of it simply isn't true. There's nothing new about the "threat" and the concept is notoriously unreliable, as well as selectively used. (These days, "lone wolf" has largely become a stand-in for "Islamic terrorist," though the category itself is not bound to any specific ideological type.) Worst of all, its recent highlighting paves the way for the heightening of abusive and counterproductive police and national security practices, including the infiltration of minority and activist communities and elaborate sting operations that ensnare the vulnerable. In addition, the categorization of such solitary individuals as terrorists supposedly driven by ideology -- left or right, secular or religious -- often obscures multiple other factors that may actually cause them to engage in violence.

Like all violent crime, individual terrorism represents a genuine risk, just an exceedingly rare and minimal one. It's not the sort of thing that the government should be able to build whole new, intrusive surveillance programs on or use as an excuse for sending in agents to infiltrate communities. National programs now being set up to combat lone-wolf terrorism have a way of wildly exaggerating its prevalence and dangers -- and in the end are only likely to exacerbate the problem. For Americans to concede more of their civil liberties in return for "security" against lone wolves wouldn't be a trade; it would be fraud.

Anatomy of the Wolf

The "literature" on both terrorism and the lone wolf should be approached with a healthy degree of skepticism. To this day, there is little consensus on what exactly terrorism is; the same is true of the lone-wolf variety.

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In the media and in recent academic studies, what separates the lone-wolf terrorist from the phenomenon in general is the perpetrator. Lone wolves are, by definition, solitary individuals, almost always men, often with mental health problems, who lash out violently against civilian targets. At least in some fashion, they are spurred on by belief. Researcher Michael Becker defines it this way: "Ideologically driven violence, or attempted violence, perpetrated by an individual who plans and executes an attack in the absence of collaboration with other individuals or groups." Although you wouldn't know it at the moment in America, the motivation for such attacks can run the gamut from religiously inspired anti-abortion beliefs to white supremacism, from animal rights to an al-Qaeda-inspired worldview.

According to the literature, lone wolves are unique in the annals of terrorism because of the solitariness with which they plan and carry out their acts. They lack peer or group pressure and their crimes are conceived and executed without assistance. In this way, they bear a strong resemblance to the individual school shooters and rampage killers that Americans are already so used to.

One practical reason many such individuals act alone, according to researchers, is fear of detection. In "Laws for the Lone Wolf," white supremacist Tom Metzger wrote: "The less any outsider knows, the safer and more successful you will be. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Never truly admit to anything." (Before 9/11, lone-wolf terrorism in America was overwhelmingly a right-wing affair.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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