The conceptual distinction between public mass shootings and domestic terrorism in the US has been bothering the Americas team for some weeks now; as the problem of classifying such incidents will be discussed in the upcoming red24 Threat Forecast for 2014, albeit briefly. There are various official definitions of terrorism, but still the question regarding the classification of mass public shootings linger. We believe that conceptual debates are not complete without case studies. Incidentally, the LAX mass shooting incident last Friday provides an appropriate example to illustrate the difficulty in determining when, if ever, such incidents should be counted as acts of terrorism.
One distinct factor on which the Americas team is in agreement is the element of perpetrator intent for defining domestic terrorism: in order for mass shootings to be branded as terrorism, the act needs to be a clear assault on the state. This is easier said than done, thus; many cases of mass shootings fall into a grey area.
The recent LAX case is troubling in terms of categorisation. One person was killed and three more injured in a public shooting at Los Angeles International Airport on 1 November. Investigations are ongoing and details are still emerging about the lone wolf perpetrator, Paul Anthony Ciancia. However, authorities have confirmed a number of preliminary facts about the case. Firstly, Ciancia targeted Transport Security Administration (TSA) agents and intentionally avoided shooting civilians at the airport. Secondly, authorities have revealed that Ciancia left a letter voicing dissatisfaction with the government (the acronym ‘NWO’ was inscribed on the letter, which authorities believe stands for ‘New World Order‘, a reference to a political conspiracy theory).
Although the above-mentioned factors suggest that Ciancia’s attack did intend to attack the state and there was some type of political motivation driving the shooting, the incident may also be branded as a criminal mass shooting. Ciancia’s family stated that they were worried about his mental health and believed that he was suicidal prior to the shooting incident; indeed, they were concerned enough to order police to conduct a welfare check on Ciancia just days before the shooting incident. Based on these factors, the District Attorney has charged Ciancia with mass murder, and not terrorism. It is important to note that personal grievances and/or mental health problems are frequently the motivation for public mass shootings; although public shootings do incite terror, the effect of the attack is not sufficient to brand such incidents as terrorism.
Nonetheless, the incident raises important problems. It appears that US authorities are reluctant to categorise public mass shootings as acts of terror. This may be a result of the gravity of prison terms associated with such attacks, but it may also suggest that the type of weapon used for these incidents matters too. Bombings are generally immediately categorised as terrorism, while incidents involving guns and semi-automatic weapons are given closer consideration by authorities. Secondly, although Ciancia may have had political motives based on a conspiracy theory, the case begs the question of how coherent a perpetrator’s ideological motive needs to be to be counted as terrorism. Furthermore, determining what classifies as ‘the state’ is also problematic; are “soft” targets, such as TSA officials, less credible symbols of the state?
Therefore, although an ideological impulse is evident in Ciancia’s attack, there are also other contradictory factors that need to be considered in this case. The challenge of debunking conflicting stimuli and the intentions of perpetrators is a major challenge for analysts and social scientists. It is especially difficult when seemingly non-terrorist motives are intertwined with more ideological impulses. The red24 Americas team has reached some form of compromise in terms of categorising incidents where it is not completely clear that the perpetrator was intending to change government policy in some way: if the motives are short-term or non-political, then the attack may be considered a criminal mass shooting. This is by no means a fool-proof way of categorising mass shootings. Analysis must be undertaken on a case-by-case basis and all variables need to be considered when distinguishing between acts of terrorism and criminally motivated acts.
Explaining the distinction between terrorism and criminal mass shootings:
Article by Lara Sierra-Rubia – Follow her on Twitter – @windupthesun
- Why isn’t the government calling the LAX shooting “terrorism?” (shortformblog.com)
- LAX Shooting Renews Debate About Armed Officers in U.S. Airports (nation.time.com)
- Police: LAX shooting suspect carried note about ‘New World Order’ during attack (rawstory.com)