What is the difference between spree killers and terrorists?

Essay: Tim Kreider reflects on the war on dirtbags

What exactly is the difference between spree killers and terrorists?
Timothy Kreider

One winter 13 years ago, when I was living in Baltimore, that city was riveted by one of the longest armed fugitive/police standoffs in history. A man with a history of mental illness, domestic abuse and arrests, whose name I won't repeat here, went on a rampage, killing four people, and then took his ex-girlfriend's mother, her boyfriend and their son hostage in a house in the working-class neighborhood of Dundalk, where he holed up for four days before being shot to death by the police. The city was glued to local TV for those four days. I’d come home and ask my housemate, "What's up with our guy?" "Still in there," he'd say.

Ever since the Boston Marathon bombing, I've found myself thinking of that episode again, for the first time in years. I've also been thinking of Newtown, and Aurora, and Columbine — all the other innocent place-names that have become a ghastly synecdoche for the plague of random violence in America. I keep wondering: What exactly is the difference between spree killers and terrorists? Why are the former only good for a few days' headlines, while the latter cause us to make major changes to our laws, our national policy and our values as a people?

That lunatic in Baltimore killed one more person than the bombers in Boston, yet that was strictly a local story, now remembered only by those who lived in and around Baltimore circa 2000, while the Boston bombing made headlines worldwide. I know that the Boston bombing mangled and maimed hundreds more than it killed, and yet if it had been a balcony collapse or a ferry crash it would not have haunted our imaginations in the same way or endured for weeks in the media.

I felt the same way everyone else did when I heard about the Boston bombing. But I still can't quite make rational sense of our reaction. Part of what scared and enraged us all about it was that it was a random attack, which made it impossible to pretend that it couldn’t have happened to us. Part of it is the seemingly motiveless malice behind such a plan, the calculated perversity of the evil evident in contriving to inflict mass agony and grief at a fun, celebratory event. In some strange way it’s the intention behind the crime, rather than the act itself or its casualties or effects, that make it so terrifying and offensive, therefore newsworthy and politically powerful.

But the taxonomy of evil is getting messy. There is a critical difference between organized terrorist networks like al-Qaeda and lone wack jobs, and it makes sense for the government to reshape its laws and take military measures to oppose the former, and for the latter to be treated as criminals by the civilian legal system. But what about lone wack jobs who happen to subscribe to the same general agendas as terrorist networks? Now that you can get easy recipes for building your own homemade bomb out of a crock pot from Inspire, the in-flight magazine of al-Qaeda, the difference between a terrorist "cell" and a couple of dirtbags with ambitions is indistinct. At this point, being a member of al-Qaeda is sort of like being a member of Anonymous — if you claim you're in it, maybe you are.

To seek to understand the motives of such people is, in a way, to cede them too much credence and dignity.

The initial reaction of a lot of victims, onlookers and commenters to the Boston bombing, before anyone knew who was behind it, was an anguished Why? There are of course some sensible reasons for needing to know this; if the perpetrators had accomplices or backers who might be planning further attacks, the police and government should know about it as soon as possible. But I don't believe the real, reason behind the public's urgent need to know the motives of the bombers was a practical one. After Boston, I wanted to know Why too; what I still don't understand is why we needed to know why. Rationally, this question doesn't make any more sense when asked about a terrorist attack or mass shooting than it does when it’s about a tornado, or cancer. It's essentially what Job asked the whirlwind. (The whirlwind's answer was rhetorically impressive but still, to my mind, ultimately unsatisfying.)

We all knew the instant the Boston explosions happened who had perpetrated them: some dirtbag. Everyone immediately ascribed blame to whichever genus of dirtbag they prefer to project evil onto: the New York Post immediately misidentified two vaguely Middle Eastern–looking bystanders as suspects; a missing Indian-American student was confidently named as one of the perpetrators on the popular misinformation site Reddit; liberals told each other on Facebook that it had been some gun nut targeting the relatives of Newtown shooting victims. As if whatever dingbat faith or crackpot ideology behind an inherently meaningless act could ultimately validate or refute anyone's position on anything. Even disordered thinking has to seize on some conventional content, and mental illness often presents with distorted imagery or ideation from religion or politics — the Antichrist or Obama, demons and black helicopters. This doesn't make it a legitimate religion or political position to be taken seriously, much less negotiated with or warred upon.

To seek to understand the motives of such people is, in a way, to cede them too much credence and dignity. Who cares what was going on in someone's head when he decided to blow up a parade or shoot up a grade school? What possible sense could any professed agenda make? I realize that mental illness and ideological fervor are not quite the same thing, but I'm not convinced that shooting up a theater because the voices in your head told you to is any different from blowing yourself up on a bus to please God. (Oxford science writer and researcher Kathleen Taylor has suggested that religious fanaticism, especially indoctrination by cults, might one day be treated as a mental illness, which has no doubt endeared her to fundamentalists of all faiths.)

If investigators had found a Quran in the Newtown shooter's bedroom, would we now have federal troops standing guard with automatic weapons next to the construction-paper bulletin boards in the halls of every elementary school? What makes the brothers who detonated the bomb in Boston "terrorists" and, say, the DC snipers just a couple of criminals? The older of those two brothers — the quote-unquote mastermind of the plot — turned to militant Islam after being involved with a street gang, but he never really changed allegiances; a dirtbag is a dirtbag no matter whose colors he wears.

I've often harbored the heretical thought that the bravest and best thing we might do as a nation in response to terrorism might be … nothing.

Terrorism is ostensibly perpetrated by fanatical cultists, and mass shootings by nihilistic pariahs, but these types would seem to have more in common than they do differences. Almost always they are young men, out of their minds on testosterone, a drug as dangerous as PCP. Combining adolescent levels of aggression and an absolutist ideology is like mixing PCP with crystal meth. It's surprising not that this toxic synergy produces killer maniacs, but that it produces so few. Both terrorism and mass killings have become a kind of evil fad. Disaffected young men now know that one way to express their rage is to kill a lot of strangers in a public place, imagining, perhaps, that this will grant them some sort of posthumous tabloid apotheosis. Now that such atrocities have become what William James called "living options," it's hard to know how to make them unthinkable again.

It seems strange to me that what is still the most powerful nation-state on the planet should treat a crime as an act of war, and an impetus for major overhauls of its laws and morals and way of life, depending on which brand of lunacy happened to be preoccupying the perpetrator. If someone kills a dozen people because he wants the infidels out of Mecca, we're willing to repeal the Fourth Amendment and forfeit our birthright as free citizens without so much as a public discussion, but if he kills a dozen people because he stopped taking his medication we've apparently decided that we're not willing to consider any kind of corrective action at all.

How come after one guy tries to detonate his own underwear on a transatlantic flight we're all expected to acquiesce to full-body scans at the airport, whereas, after Newtown, when the citizenry overwhelmingly called for reform of our gun laws, the government ultimately decided the most judicious course would be to do nothing? (I also note that the NRA has not launched a massive lobbying effort to follow up on its suggestion about posting armed guards in schools.) Is it just a matter of equipage — that somehow guns, no matter how high-tech and military-grade, are still an all-American product associated with cowboys and gangsters, while even the crudest homemade bombs are considered instruments of war — as Bush et al had it, "weapons of mass destruction"?

Except if it's just a matter of choice of weaponry, why didn't Tim McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing induce the same convulsions of governance as did 9/11 — the Patriot Act and PRISM, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Iraq? Was it the lesser number of casualties? That it didn't take place on TV, or in the capital of the U.S. media world? Or is the only real difference the one so obvious it’s taboo to mention — that "terrorists" are by definition born in foreign countries and have dark skin and funny-sounding last names? Some people called Boston the first major act of terrorism since 9/11, apparently not counting the white guys who shot up a school, a movie theater or a temple full of Sikhs.

The best-deserved fate of terrorists and mass killers alike, as well as the most effective deterrent to them, might be that of that Baltimore fugitive in the '90s — to be forgotten as soon as possible, buried in the unmarked grave of ignominy, just another footnote in dirtbag history. I've often harbored the heretical thought that the bravest and best thing we might do as a nation in response to terrorism might be … nothing. Refuse to cede a single clause or bylaw of our liberty, to become a crueler or more fearful country. No lockdowns or Code Oranges, no submachine guns in the subways or strip-searches at the airports, no hotboxes or dog collars. I know how unserious and irresponsible a suggestion this must sound. But let me ask, in all seriousness: Could doing nothing possibly have been any more stupid and ruinous than what we've actually done?

Perhaps, as is depressingly often the case, the most cynical explanation is the correct one: Our nation's school shooters have a highly organized and well-funded lobby backing them, and politicians, now as ever, are easily bullied or bought. Which is why it's just as easy to buy a Bushmaster rifle as it was before the slaughter of toddlers at Newtown, but since the Boston Marathon bombing the Feds have begun investigating people shopping online for some of the more lethal forms of cookware. (Maybe if al-Qaeda spent some of its budget on K Street we wouldn’t have to put up with increased airport security.)

But sometimes it's hard to resist an even darker suspicion: that the crucial difference between what we call "spree killers" and "terrorists" isn't race or ideology or armament, or even the power and influence of the pro-shooter lobby, but that our government, photo-op condolence hugs aside, is ultimately indifferent to attacks on its people — even on its children — but reacts with instant Draconian hysteria to any attack on its authority.

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