By James M. Dorsey
A recent school shooting in the US state of Washington and a lone wolf’s assault on the Canadian parliament in Ottawa are but two of the latest headline-grabbing incidents of home-grown violence.
One had nothing to do with politics, the other is classified as a terrorist attack perpetrated by a jihadist Muslim.
Yet, both involved troubled young men groping with personal problems and demons. Their actions are in many ways cries of desperation in the absence of badly needed help. They beg the question whether criminalisation and stepped-up security is an effective one-stop prevention tool without developing mechanisms providing early warning and help to individuals about to go off the deep end.
At the surface, Jaylen Fryberg, a popular freshman, who last month opened fire on classmates during lunch at a high school near Seattle, appeared to be a happy student. He was a well-liked athlete who shortly before his shooting spree had been named his school’s freshman homecoming prince. Fryberg, who shot himself during the incident, is no longer able to explain what prompted him to shoot fellow students and put an end to his own life. But the subsequent police investigation suggests that he was angry at being rebuffed by a girl that chose his cousin over him.
By contrast, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the 32 year-old convert to Islam, who last month killed a guard at Ottawa’s National Monument before storming the Canadian parliament, had all the trappings of a troubled down-and-out. Canadian media reported Zehaf-Bibeau had a history of mental illness and a criminal record that included drug possession, theft, and issuing threats. He was addicted to crack cocaine and spent the last weeks of his life in a homeless shelter. The Globe and Mail quoted a friend, Dave Bathurst, as being told by Zehaf-Bibeau that the devil was after him. “I think he must have been mentally ill,” Bathurst told The Globe and Mail.
Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, viewed on its own, provides insight into the recruitment tactics of Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq. It also highlights its targeting of Muslims, including converts, troubled by a feeling of alienation, personal problems or mental issues. Lone wolves like Zehaf-Bibeau seeking salvation by becoming part of a larger movement and to give apocalyptic meaning to their lives serves Islamic State’s purpose. It is a state of mind that Islamic State understands as is evident from its urging of Muslims to use whatever weapons they can put their hands on to launch attacks in their home countries.
But taken together, the cases of Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau raise the question whether there is a difference between a school shooting and a politically motivated terrorist attack by a lone wolf from the perspective of applying lessons from psychology and psychiatry to crime prevention. Both Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau had issued cries for help in their own ways.
Writing on Twitter, Fryberg warned the woman who had rejected him that “your gonna piss me off… And then some (expletive) gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it.” Several days later, he tweeted “It breaks me… It actually does… I know it seems like I’m sweating it off… But I’m not… And I never will be able to.”
Bathurst, like Zehaf-Bibeau a convert to Islam, was perhaps the one person Zehaf-Bibeau appeared to confide in. Beyond telling him about his alleged persecution by the devil, Zehaf-Bibeau shared his plans to go to Libya to study with Bathurst who suggested to him that something else rather than learning may be what his driving him. Zehaf-Bibeau’s apparent sense of alienation was deepened when the mosque that he and Bathurst attended asked him to no longer come to prayer because of his erratic behaviour.
The school shooting prompted renewed calls for stepped-up gun control in the United States. It also sparked debate about ways of ensuring that troubled students are identified early on and offered the assistance they were pleading for. By contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper denounced Zehaf-Bibeau as a “terrorist”, linking his acts to an attack two days before the assault on parliament in which Martin Couture-Rouleau hit and killed two Canadian soldiers with his car. Harper said both attacks had been inspired by Islamic State.
That may indeed be the case. Nonetheless, radicalism’s attraction is not uniquely Islamic. Canadian writer Jeet Heer suggests that militant political Islam has the same attraction for mentally unstable individuals as did anarchism for Leon Czolgosz who assassinated US President William McKinley in 1901 or Marxism that prompted Lee Harvey Oswald to kill John F. Kennedy.
“If you are alienated from the existing social order, the possibility of joining, even as a ‘lone wolf’ killer, any larger social movement that promises to overturn that society may be attractive,” Heer wrote. “For a person radicalised in this manner, the fantasy of political violence is a chance to gain agency, make history, and be part of something larger.”
The Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau cases may differ in detail and motivation, yet they both reflect societal problems, whether they are concepts of misguided masculinity in which young men feel inhibited in expressing emotion or increased isolation and alienation as a result of prejudice against mental instability. Both cases illustrate the need to develop early warning mechanisms that help ensure that troubled individuals receive the help and support that will prevent them from possibly committing violent acts. That rather than an approach that exclusively seeks to pre-empt terrorist violence through criminalization and increased security is likely to prove to be a more effective safeguard.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.