Is the distinction between a terrorist act and an active shooter scenario an irrelevant distinction? I asked this question to a group of graduate students at John Jay College last week during a presentation that I was giving about violence prevention in the public sector. All but one student raised their hands to say that the Boston bombers were terrorists, while none raised their hands indicating that they thought they were active shooters. One student raised his hand saying that it didn’t matter. My guess is that many people would respond in a similar fashion. Would your answer be different though if the Boston bombers chose to use a different weapon in their attack instead of using IEDs?
Personally, I’m with the student who thought that it doesn’t matter whether the Boston bombers were terrorists or assailants, because we can’t prevent violence by simply looking for “terrorists.” We can’t “see” an ideology, beliefs, or ideas, which makes it difficult to observe those factors before an attack. What we can see is the impact that an active shooter has on the public’s perception of safety. This installation of fear is exactly the same impact that a terrorist attack has. After a shooting in a mall, a movie theater, a school, or an office building, many people question the safety in going to visit those places. After the shooting in Aurora, CO, it took a while for me to get over the concern of copycat shooters and to go see The Dark Knight Rises last summer. James Holmes isn’t considered a terrorist, he is considered an active shooter incident, but the fear that he caused was the same fear that people had about flying after September 11th, or about riding a train after the July 7th attacks in London.
When it comes to preventing violence, there is no meaningful difference between criminals and terrorists. Looking at the motives that exist in attacks is limiting. For one it limits our observation to those that we have a personal knowledge about. This would also have us focusing on variables that change from attack to attack. These variables also include an attacker’s profile, the relationship between the attacker and the victims, the location of the attack, and the weapons used in an attack. These five variables only become important when we are right of bang, when an attack has already occurred. To an investigator, there is obviously a great deal of difference if someone was motivated by an extremist ideology or experienced a mental break. In terms of preventing another attack from occurring, determining if the attack was terrorism or a criminal act is essential, but only after the fact. For those focused on violence prevention, because the impacts of an active shooter and a terrorist are seemingly identical, the focus must remain on identifying people with violent intentions. This does not come from identifying beliefs, but instead from the conscious intent to harm others.