A Counterterrorism Strategy for White Shooters?

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Taking a page from conservatives who complain when people shy away from labeling armed jihadi attacks as “terrorism,” some liberals were quick to demand that the Charleston black church massacre be classified in the same way. And with good reason. The dictionary definition of the word is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” That fits the white supremacist’s intentions exactly.

The liberals’ point concerned racial bias in the media. But correcting the terminology problem carries implications beyond what some on the left intended. For one thing, if a non-Muslim white American mass shooter is no different than a radical Islamic militant, then that raises the question: What “counterterrorism” methods should we be using on our homegrown terrorists?

That’s the right question—because it turns out that we are really dealing with the same profile of person.

Criminal justice professor Adam Lankford has researched how psychologically similar American “rampage shooters” are to foreign Muslim extremists. In a New York Times op-ed after the Newtown massacre he counseled, “We should think of many rampage shooters as non-ideological suicide terrorists. In some cases, they claim to be fighting for a cause … but, as with suicide terrorists, their actions usually stem from something much deeper and more personal.”

Many of these terrorists are driven by the urge to be “posthumously famous,” and therefore choose targets that will attract maximum attention. Fifteen years ago, the presumption was that only bombings and airplane hijackings satisfied that criteria. In his 2009 masterwork “Columbine,” Dave Cullen deemed the high school killers to be terrorists as the shooting was really a more grandiose bomb plot gone awry.

“Terrorists rarely settle for just shooting; that limits the damage to individuals. They prefer to blow up things,” he wrote. “When all his bombs fizzled, everything about [Eric Harris’] attack was misread. … He was never categorized with his peer group. We lumped him in with the pathetic loners who shot people.”

One depressing aftershock of Columbine is that homegrown American terrorists have realized that with the right target – and in some cases, a complementary disturbing message on the Internet – a mass shooting will terrorize the population just as effectively as a bomb.

Since these killers want their motivations to be known, they tend to send signals, sometimes online. That suggests the federal government should be monitoring social media for potential threats.

Debates rages over what data the federal government is constitutionally permitted to collect in the course of pursuing foreign-based terrorist threats. For domestic threats, the Constitution restrictions are clearer. But they don’t apply to social media communications that are not private.  

Still, the warning signs on social media can be hard to spot and maddeningly cryptic, well short of clear-cut criminal intent. Dylann Roof’s Internet footprint before the killings was light, although we are starting to learn that he engaged other white supremacists online.

The YouTube videos from 2014 Santa Barbara mass shooter Elliot Rodger, posted weeks before his rampage, came across as more suicidal than homicidal. Still, they upset his mother enough that she alerted a counselor, which led to an infamously incompetent police visit that failed to uncover his weapons stash. This year, a foiled mass shooting in Halifax, Canada, was obliquely teased by an alleged American co-conspirator who posted on her blog “Valentine’s Day It’s Going Down,” though it was an anonymous tip that led to her arrest.

So you can’t expect blanket monitoring of social media postings to be able to perfectly discern between the innocuous and the ominous. No one wants to live in an online world where people are arrested or harassed by police for harmless, misinterpreted posts.

Even if we did want the federal government to have wide latitude to convict people for threatening online messages, last month the Supreme Court made that more difficult. A man had been convicted by lower courts for writing on Facebook such things as “…making a name for myself/ Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius/ to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.” But he also included disclaimers that the posts were a form of therapeutic art. The high court threw out the conviction, saying the government failed to prove criminal intent.

Yet the federal government has had successes thwarting attacks with the help of online monitoring. Last year the FBI arrested Ryan Chamberlain after discovering bomb-making materials in his San Francisco apartment. The criminal complaint says that Chamberlain “admitted that he was aware of the Tor network,” which is an anonymity tool created by the U.S. government to help dissidents of authoritarian regimes, but also can be exploited by criminals. The remark in the affidavit suggests that government monitoring of Chamberlain’s activities on the network led to his arrest.

In January, an Islamic State-inspired plotter named Christopher Cornell was arrested after the FBI monitored his Twitter activity, though only after an informant made online contact with Cornell and subsequently tipped off the feds. Anti-surveillance activists like Glenn Greenwald immediately raised the specter of entrapment. But two months after the arrest, Cornell called a local TV station from prison and boasted of his plan to “attack … the United States Capitol” on behalf of the Islamic State. Wright State University terrorism expert Donna Schlagheck said without government monitoring of his online activity, he likely would never have been caught.

Clearly, government monitoring of social media has a role to play in stopping various types of terrorist plots, especially when aided by tips from associates of potential assailants. (Perhaps if some of Roof’s friends took his threatening comments more seriously, a deeper exploration of his online activity might have been useful.)

News of government monitoring invariably produces a backlash, some of it quite hysterical, from the left and right. Reports of “keywords” that Homeland Security looks for bred charges from the civil libertarian left that you may be ensnared if you have “tweeted about your recent vacation in ‘Mexico’ or a shopping trip to ‘Target.’”

When the Department of Homeland Security back in 2009 prepared a report on potential threats from right-wing extremist groups, conservatives went ballistic.  Michelle Malkin wrote that the DHS report “demonizes” the Tea Party and was proof that “Obama’s DHS is watching.” The report was removed from government websites in response, and the lead author later said DHS “ended up gutting my unit.” But since then, we’ve learned that deaths from right-wing domestic terrorism on American soil – such as the Charleston massacre – occur nearly twice as much as those from Islamic terrorism.

Conservatives often claim that “political correctness” is hampering our counter-terrorism strategy. They’re right, except for which kind of terrorism that is getting off easy.

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future, executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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