Are Mass Shootings Like Terrorism?

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A young woman places flowers on a memorial after a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
A young woman places flowers on a memorial after a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

School shootings, such as the one which just saw 17 killed in Florida, and terrorist attacks both involve killing large numbers of innocent people. To parents who have lost a child, whichever motive used by the killer will probably matter little.

To those seeking to understand horrific events and figure out how to prevent them, motive matters quite a lot. Clarion and other outlets concerned with Islamism and terrorism have frequently argued that what separates school shootings from terror attacks is that terrorism is motivated by ideology, whereas school shootings are, while abhorrent, apolitical. We have therefore treated them as separate categories of event, requiring very different responses.

We stand by that basic distinction. But if we want a violence-free world — a laudable, if distant and perhaps unachievable goal — it is worth investigating similarities to see if there are common root causes in play. Matt Walsh framed the question perfectly for the Daily Wire, asking simply,Why would a person choose to do something like this?

With that in mind, here are three similarities between mass shootings and terrorist attacks, with tentative analysis of how these factors could be tackled.


1.People Are Murdered in Very Similar Ways

Starting with the most obvious similarity, people are murdered. They are murdered with sophisticated weaponry in a precise and systematic way. Indeed the attacks look so similar in methodology that in cases such as the Vegas shooting, for the first several hours nobody knew if the shooting was an Islamist terrorist attack or a non-ideological mass shooting. We still don’t know gunman Stephen Paddock’s true motive.

Compare those attacks to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, an act of terrorism carried out with the same methodology as a school shooting.

Terrorism does not take place in a vacuum and both terrorists and mass shooters learn from each other in how to inflict maximum carnage. It seems likely therefore that reducing different kinds of violence would have a knock-on effect, by lowering the amount of potential inspiration for such acts.


2.Notoriety Plays a Role

Contemporary culture is a media-driven culture. Anyone who commits a mass shooting of any kind is aware of the fame and attention poured onto those who commit acts of mass violence. Someone using the name Nikolas Cruz, the name of the perpetrator of the latest school shooting, posted a 2017 YouTube comment, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

After the Florida attack, threats of copycat shootings by school students across the country led to multiple arrests.

As a result of this notoriety factor, in 2015, 70 families of school shooting victims asked media outlets not to use the names of school shooters when reporting attacks, calling on them to “recognize that the prospect of infamy could serve as a motivating factor for other individuals to kill and could inspire copycat crimes.”

Psychologists have also argued that a desire for infamy can motivate terrorists as well. The awareness of this phenomenon led many people to lash out against Rolling Stone magazine when the publication put Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the magazine’s cover in a glamorous pose.

Reducing coverage of the specific killers could reduce the likelihood of disenfranchised young men.


3.Toxic Masculinity

You will find no shortage of think pieces blaming toxic masculinity for gun violence, both apolitical mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Toxic masculinity is the theory that certain extreme and narrow ideas about what it means to be a man — focusing on violence, strength, a lack of showing emotion and domination of women — are widespread and cause significant harm, especially when men feel left out and alienated from contemporary understandings of masculine success (power, wealth, women).

Despite the rhetoric from some sections of both the left and right, toxic masculinity in the most precise and useful understanding of the term does not mean masculinity in general. It is contrasted with healthy or positive masculinity, which can be a tremendous force for good.

They have a point.

The vast majority of mass shootings, like the vast majority of terrorist attacks, are perpetrated by men.

Santa Barbara killer Elliot Rodgers wrote an entire 137-page manifesto aimed viciously at women and their refusal to have sex with him. It seems unlikely that the most recent shooter’s decision to strike on Valentine’s Day was a coincidence.

Meanwhile, consider the promised rewards for Islamist terrorists in paradise — 72 virgins and an eternity of debauchery and bliss. ISIS offers recruits the chance to take sex-slaves and rule over their wives.

As Time Magazine, like many others has argued, “Young men are facing a masculinity crisis.” Men who are losing in the modern world can, in their rage and frustration, turn to violence as a salve.

Supporting positive and emotionally healthy visions of what it means to be a man — together with a framework for community, meaning and personal growth for young men — could be effective in dissuading potential shooters long before they begin a path to mass murder.



What One (Badly Made) Bomb Can Do

Why Terrorism?

Why Do We Keep Talking About Ideology?


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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