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General News    H3'ed 2/5/15

Matthew Harwood: The Fear of Lone-Wolf Terrorism Rises

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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.

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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