Terrorism Has Many Faces, Causes

By Jack Levin and James Alan Fox., October 24, 2002

As Washington-area residents begin to breathe a collective sigh of relief following the arrest of two men allegedly tied to the sniper case, the focus moves from blind speculation about motive to an attempt at understanding the will to kill. Why would a former U.S. soldier and a teenage boy, described as his stepson, harbor such bitterness toward the American way of life that they would target total strangers to further their beliefs?

Even though the suspects, John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, may have expressed sympathy for the Arab terrorists responsible for Sept. 11, it appears fairly certain that the pair are not tied to any organized terrorist group, such as al-Qaida. Surely, communications from the suspects through letters and phone calls to the task force failed to show any degree of political sophistication. Yet, the term terrorist is fitting nonetheless. While lacking in political motivation, the shooting spree may have been inspired instead by the shooter's need to feel powerful and be in control.

Having failed in other aspects of life, Muhammad, presumably the one in charge, would have exalted in his ability to turn the region into a personal shooting gallery.

But deciding who lives and dies - playing God - is only a small part of the thrill the shooter would derive from the murder spree. He also would seek to feel important and superior by winning his cat-and-mouse game with police, by becoming a media celebrity, even if anonymously, and by wreaking havoc on an entire region.

Unlike many serial killers who shoot their victims at a single location, a sniper aims to get revenge not against a wife, a boss or a class of people, but against all humankind. By serially targeting strangers, he is able to demonstrate 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 sniper should remind us, violence has long been a fact of life in America, 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 semi-automatic rifles. In 20 percent of these cases, the victims are total strangers. To be sure, the Washington-region 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 Mideast, 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- and left-wing extremists or radical environmentalists. In 1995, for example, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. In 1996, a deadly explosion ripped through Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta and a fugitive, Eric Rudolph, is being sought for that act. In 1999, Benjamin Smith went on a shooting rampage in Illinois and Indiana, killing a Korean graduate student and an African-American basketball coach and wounding nine other persons. And in 2000, out-of-work immigration 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 because they were inspired more by pathology than politics. In 1981, for example, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. In 1984, James Huberty said he thought he was killing gophers when he shot to death 20 customers in a California McDonald's.

Terrorists come in a variety of shapes and sizes. If it is smart to keep an eye on suspicious foreigners, 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, veterans, the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill, and other disenfranchised and dispirited groups in our midst - can inspire homegrown terrorists like the sniper.

Jack Levin is a professor of sociology and James Alan Fox is a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, Boston.