Counter-Intuitive Questions about Lone Wolf Terror

Lone Wolf terrorists have been dominating the news in recent weeks. There was of course the tragedy in Toulouse, France. But the massacre of Afghan civilians by a US soldier also seems to fit the profile. All of the information is not in about this incident, but simply chalking it up to PTSD seems inappropriate. There are thousands of US soldiers who have suffered from PTSD (not to mention a huge percentage of the population of Afghanistan.)

The obvious responses to these incidents will be to heighten various security measures and try to further identify key indicators for individuals who are going to turn to violence. This is all well and good and of course should be done. But there are limits to how effective this approach will be. The number of people with some of the characteristics that seem to indicate this kind of action (whether it be young Muslims with some connection to Islamist radicals or US service people under stress) is quite simply enormous. Monitoring them systematically is not realistic, will require vast and intrusive security forces, and open societies do not provide grounds for locking people up before they have committed a crime.

But I am curious about the potential efficacy of taking the opposite approach and asking, Why aren’t there more lone wolf attacks?

It is of course easy enough to make a list of all the attacks and argue that there have in fact been a great many. But consider, the United States suffers over 15000 homicides per year. Even a much less homicide prone nation like France has about a 1000 homicides per year. Thus except for the Norwegian mass murderer Breivik, lone wolves have been little more then a statistical blip.

Yet, these kinds of action are all too easy to carry out. Certainly in the US access to firearms is not a substantial barrier (and not that much more of a barrier in Europe to one dedicated to their cause.) There is no shortage of propaganda calling for lone wolf terrorism (either from al-Qaeda or from homegrown radicals such as the message propagated in the Turner Diaries.) Terrorism experts have been loudly exclaiming this new wave of terror and it can certainly be a cost-effective way to gain attention and spread terror.

But the numbers are relatively small (obviously that is no consolation to the families of the victims.) But the danger of over-reaction is also real (it is argued that one of the real goals of terrorism is to set a society against itself by initiating an over-reaction.) An over-reaction could alienate minorities and drain resources from other problems as well as erode freedoms.

Similarly, considering the length service and the stresses faced by US servicemen, it seems astounding how few atrocities by US servicepeople have occurred. There have been some. There have also been many, many cases were US servicemen made poor decisions, or had inadequate information. But these were tragic accidents in which, given perfect information the servicemen would have almost certainly acted differently. War is full of these horrible accidents, but they are not a brutal crime the way the massacre in Afghanistan was (although again, this is little comfort to the families of the victims.)

Again, I return to the point that, considering the ease of these kinds of incidents why haven’t we seen a lot more of them? What are the barriers to long wolf attacks? What are we doing right? Answering those questions may unearth some useful policy options.

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