Terrorism, American style

By Jack Levin and James Alan Fox, 10/23/2002

AS FEAR has enveloped the Washington area, profilers and pundits have wondered whether the serial sniper, who has claimed the lives of 10 people, might be a member of Al Qaeda or another terrorist group. Absent any claims of responsibility from such organizations, this speculation is at best far-fetched.

It would surely be out of character for a Muslim fundamentalist to collect Tarot cards or use a phrase like ''I am God'' in his message to the police. Having a decidedly anti-American agenda, moreover, his targets would more likely involve influential people and conspicuous locations, not ordinary people in schoolyards, shopping malls, or gasoline stations.

Yet, the term terrorist is fitting nonetheless. While probably lacking in political motivation, the shooting spree is likely inspired instead by the shooter's need to feel powerful and be in control.

Having failed in other aspects of life, this man would exalt in his ability to turn the region into his own personal shooting gallery. But deciding who lives and dies - that is, playing God - is only a small part of the thrill he derives from the murder spree. He also seeks to feel important and superior by winning his cat and mouse game with law enforcement, by becoming a media celebrity even if anonymously, and by wreaking havoc on the metropolitan area.

Unlike many mass killers who shoot their victims at a single location, the D.C. sniper aims to get revenge not against a wife, a boss, or a class of people, but against all of humankind. By serially targeting strangers, he is able to demonstrate again and again his skill with a firearm, as well as his elusiveness and cunning.

Before the sniper launched his killing spree, many Americans associated terrorism with violence originating in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. The Sept. 11 attacks on America focused our national resolve on efforts to counteract threats of terrorism.

Yet as the D.C. sniper should remind us, violence was a fact of life in America long before the collapse of the twin towers, and our resolve is just as critical in responding to problems within our social fabric.

Our national homicide rate has long led the western industrialized world. Moreover, there are on average 20 mass killings in this country every year, taking the lives of some 100 Americans. Most are committed with high powered semiautomatic rifles. In 20 percent of these cases, the victims are total strangers. To be sure, the D.C. serial sniper has some unique characteristics, but he is hardly anomalous with respect to weapon, victim characteristics, or likely motivation.

Actually, terrorism comes from a variety of sources. Not every act of terror results in thousands of deaths, originates with an organized group, or has political motivation. The largest number of terrorist acts do not come from the Middle East, but from our own citizens.

The FBI estimates there were 457 acts of terrorism in this country between 1980 and 1999, the majority of which were committed by right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists, or radical environmentalists. In 1995, for example, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. In 1996, fugitive Eric Rudolph caused the deadly explosion that ripped through Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. In 1999, Indiana University student Benjamin Smith went on a shooting rampage, in which a Korean graduate student and an African-American basketball coach were slain. And in 2000, out-of-work attorney Richard Baumhammers shot to death five residents of suburban Pittsburgh because he despised immigrants.

At the same time, there have been numerous terrorist acts not officially considered as such by federal law enforcement because they were inspired more by pathology than politics. In 1981, for example, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jody Foster. In 1984, James Huberty thought he was killing gophers when he shot to death 21 customers in a San Ysidro McDonald's.

President Bush has urged us all to be vigilant in the war against terrorism. This might be good advice especially if we begin to recognize that terrorists come in a variety of shapes and sizes. If it is smart to keep an eye on suspicious foreigners in our midst, then we should also keep an eye on one another.

Experts in political terrorism have traced anti-American sentiment to deficiencies in our policies toward underdeveloped nations around the globe. Similarly, we might examine how our domestic agenda - in particular, our approach to the welfare recipients, the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill, and other disenfranchised and dispirited groups in our midst - can inspire homegrown terrorists like the D.C. sniper.

Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.