Shooting Sprees vs Organized Terrorist Attacks

We treat violence by lone individuals differently than organized violence. Race, religion, and national origin have nothing to do with that.


In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, an argument has arisen that we treat acts of mass murder committed by foreigners as evil terrorism while acts committed by white Americans are treated as simple crimes. David Sirota makes the case for Salon (“Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American: There is a double standard: White terrorists are dealt with as lone wolves, Islamists are existential threats“):

As we now move into the official Political Aftermath period of the Boston bombing — the period that will determine the long-term legislative fallout of the atrocity — the dynamics of privilege will undoubtedly influence the nation’s collective reaction to the attacks. That’s because privilege tends to determine: 1) which groups are — and are not — collectively denigrated or targeted for the unlawful actions of individuals; and 2) how big and politically game-changing the overall reaction ends up being.

This has been most obvious in the context of recent mass shootings. In those awful episodes, a religious or ethnic minority group lacking such privilege would likely be collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse) if some of its individuals comprised most of the mass shooters. However, white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings — even though most come at the hands of white dudes.

Likewise, in the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.

This strikes me as incredibly muddled. Major Nidal Malik Hasan is being treated as an ordinary criminal, despite not being a white dude and proudly proclaiming not only jihadist motivations for his shooting spree but claiming membership in al Qaeda. Why? Because he’s perceived as a lone wolf and his connections to al Qaeda are at best ephemeral.

Timothy McVeigh, the white dude behind the Oklahoma City bombing, was treated as a terrorist, tried, convicted, and put to death. His connections to white supremacist militia groups were touted by no less than the President of the United States. Even so, it was determined that he was the mastermind behind the operation and that he carried it out with the help of one or two others; there was no broad militia plot to continue blowing up federal buildings.

The 9/11 plot was different. It was organized and perpetrated by a well-financed, well organized group that had committed numerous previous attacks on United States targets—including a United States Navy vessel, two US embassies, and a previous attempt on the World Trade Center—and had issued a manifesto declaring a war on our country as part of a larger plan to take control of the Arab world. While many wanted—and still want—to treat this as a law enforcement matter, the scale, severity, and organization led us to treat it primarily as an act of war.

Even so, it should be noted, President Bush took great and immediate pains to emphasize repeatedly that this was a war against extremist groups with global reach, not a  religion with a billion peaceful adherents. While many transgressions occurred, he also took great care to ensure that the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan was seen as an attack against the Taliban and al Qaeda and not the peaceful Afghan population.

Sirota continues:

“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” writes author Tim Wise. “White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.”

The perpetrators of 9/11 were brown Muslims from Saudi Arabia. We did not nuke Mecca. Indeed, we continued our alliance with the Saudi government and resurrected an uneasy alliance with Muslim Pakistan in order to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. There are dozens of Muslim-majority states on the planet. We’re targeting only those that harbor al Qaeda—plus Iraq, settling a longstanding beef with Saddam Hussein.

If the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing turns out to be a member of the IRA, we’ll arrest him. If he turns out to be a member of al Qaeda but remains in the United States . . .  we’ll arrest him. Which is what we did with the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. And Hassan. And Richard Reid (“the shoe bomber”). And Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab (the “underwear bomber”). And John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (the “Beltway snipers”). And many, many more non-white perpetrators of terrorism and mass murder who were reachable by traditional law enforcement.

Now, it’s true that the public reaction is somewhat different. There is indeed a cohort that blames all Muslims for Muslim terrorism while few, indeed blame all Christians for the acts of McVeigh or various abortion clinic bombers or mass shooters. There’s an element of “privilege” there. But it’s one borne of familiarity with the known versus the ignorance and fear of the unknown.

Though FBI data show fewer terrorist plots involving Muslims than terrorist plots involving non-Muslims, America has mobilized a full-on war effort exclusively against the prospect of Islamic terrorism. Indeed, the moniker “War on Terrorism” has come to specifically mean “War on Islamic Terrorism,” involving everything from new laws like the Patriot Act, to a new torture regime, to new federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to mass surveillance of Muslim communities.

By contrast, even though America has seen a consistent barrage of attacks from domestic non-Islamic terrorists, the privilege and double standards baked into our national security ideologies means those attacks have resulted in no systemic action of the scope marshaled against foreign terrorists. In fact, it has been quite the opposite — according to Darryl Johnson, the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, the conservative movement backlash to merely reporting the rising threat of such domestic terrorism resulted in DHS seriously curtailing its initiatives against that particular threat.

Again, Sirota conflates our reaction to al Qaeda—an incredibly well financed group out of reach of American law enforcement that continually plots and carries out attacks against Americans—with our reaction to acts committed by brown people. Yet, in every instance not involving al Qaeda—and, indeed, many instances involving al Qaeda operatives caught on American or friendly soil—we use the same criminal justice approach we use against white dudes.

The “consistent barrage of attacks from domestic non-Islamic terrorists” are actually a series of completely unrelated one-off criminal acts. Indeed, the vast majority are mere wishes to commit criminal acts. The only connection is that they’re pissed off right wingers, many also white supremacists.

By contrast, I would note, we treat the Ku Klux Klan as an organized terrorist group. Why? Because individual racist assholes who shot cops or plot to assassinate President Obama are an isolated, unpredictable threat. What are we going to do, arrest everyone who has ever used the word “nigger” just in case? But the Klan, like al Qaeda, is organized and persistent. They’re targetable as an ongoing criminal conspiracy.

If recent history is any guide, if the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident — one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates. Put another way, white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack.

But we’d treat it that way if the perpetrator is black or Hispanic or Asian-American.

The fact that some number of right wingers or gun nuts individually commit crimes might cause us to take some sort of collective action. For example, the recent series of isolated shooting sprees has reignited the debate over limiting the firepower available to ordinary citizens. But the fact that they’re tied together by a loose ideology doesn’t turn them into a conspiracy. They’re “isolated acts,” not because the perpetrators are overwhelmingly white males but because they’re, well, isolated. It’s the difference between ordinary street crime and Organized Crime. We treat the two very, very differently.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Crime, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    “..This strikes me as incredibly muddled…”

    That was generous.

  2. Mikey says:

    Yes, being white in America is a great advantage. I get it. But what drives a writer to put together a multi-thousand-word piece littered with all the fallacies and nonsense in Sirota’s? It’s straight-up dumbassery. Of course we’re not going to deport a white American, where the hell would we send him?

    Is it improper to assume immediately that an attack like the one in Boston was perpetrated by a Muslim terrorist? Yes, because we don’t know enough yet. The use of pressure cookers as bomb vessels is significant, but it is not 100% indicative, because anyone could find the instructions on the internet.

    But it’s equally improper to assume it’s a right-wing guy or group, and it’s just plain stupid to hope the bomber is a white American.

  3. Lit3Bolt says:

    Sirota was jumping on the Glenn Greenwald bandwagon, who was condemning all of America as Muslim-haters for the reaction of Pam Geller to the Boston Marathon bombings.

    For a driftglass takedown of these fabulous fools, see this.

  4. john personna says:

    The psychology of the “in-group” versus “out-group” is pretty well established. You are right that we can sometimes see individuals in the out-group, but when we do, we really rise above our nature. We are built to generalize about “the other,” while seeing criminals without our own group as exceptions to some rule.

    (Of course, this doesn’t stop people from defining an “other” within their own nation as well.)

  5. john personna says:


    Of course we’re not going to deport a white American, where the hell would we send him?

    The Martian Penal Colony!

  6. john personna says:

    Shorter: We all remember why the parable was about a good Samaritan, right?

  7. Mikey says:

    @john personna: I figured we’d put them on the SS Botany Bay…wait, that didn’t turn out well.

    The Martian Penal Colony it is!

  8. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I think that one could make a strong argument that one of the consequences of the OKC bombing was that the militia movement was hobbled in the US for over a decade because a majority of Americans did, in fact, extrapolate McVeigh and Nichols out to militias as a whole.

  9. Scott says:

    Good analysis. Too bad you soiled it by needlessly throwing in the pejorative labels “right winger” and “gun nuts”.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Scott: I’m a conservative and multiple gun owner. We need pejorative labels for members of those groups who are on the lunatic fringe, especially the violent fringe. That’s why we have “Islamists,” for example, to contrast them with ordinary Muslims.

  11. john personna says:


    A twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon had his body torn into by the force of a bomb. He wasn’t alone; a hundred and seventy-six people were injured. But he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Yes. Not loving this but not sure how to avoid reasonable profiling, either. In the wake of what looks to be a terrorist attack, an Arab man shouting allah’s name might naturally come under suspicion for a couple of hours until an investigation clears him.

  13. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @James Joyner: I’m much less troubled by the police reaction than the media framing Davidson describes.

  14. Barry says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: “I think that one could make a strong argument that one of the consequences of the OKC bombing was that the militia movement was hobbled in the US for over a decade because a majority of Americans did, in fact, extrapolate McVeigh and Nichols out to militias as a whole. ”

    One wonders what would have happened if he was a left-wing terrorist, in a time when a large number of leftist ‘militias’ were being formed, talking loudly about overthrowing the government by force (along with a lot of Democratic politicians and liberal media personalities).

  15. Latino_in_Boston says:

    I’ll concede the point on the official response as you describe it, Dr. Joyner. Although even here I think it’s not as clear as you make it. McVeigh and Rudolph were inspired by an ideology akin to that of Islamists (in the sense that he felt his violence to be justified), for one. But anyway, I can concede that.

    The issue, however, is not just the official response, but the overall public response which in turn shapes official responses for all kinds of things–including many which are not directly related. If the perpetrator turns out to be a Rudolph type, but Muslim–that is, a person who is a “lone wolf ” but was inspired by Al Qaeda or Islamist writings–I can just imagine what it will do to islamophobia in this country. As it is, muslims or “people that look like muslims” are already disproportionate targets of hate crimes in this country, they already face all kinds of discrimination and “reasonable” profiling as you put it, where even when you’re a victim you’re considered a potential perpetrator. Brown and black people already suffer a disproportionate amount of harassment from the police, having a Muslim as the attacker will only deepen this problem, and I’m almost certain a number of hate crimes in the weeks or months after we find this out. In addition to islamophobia, it might also derail potential immigration reform. King, Sessions and others are already using the attack as a way to justify their preferred policies. I can see Fox News getting behind an anti-immigration effort if this person turns out to be a Muslim, or God Forbid, a Latino.

    When these things happen, I always pray that it turns out to be a white man, because the consequences of any member of the out-group being the perpetrator always has dire consequences for that community regardless of their entire lack of sympathy for that individual. It’s as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow.

  16. Gustopher says:

    If the attacker is domestic, we don’t tend to respond by bombing the neighborhood they live in and killing the innocent folks down the street. But, that is what we usually do if the attacker is from the mideast.

    I don’t know why Sirota focuses on race or gender, I think the key is origin (often linked to race, but we’ve got lots of people from everywhere here).

    I do hope the attacker turns out to be some American nutjob.We are a strong nation, we shouldn’t be so easily provoked into stupid overreactions by small petty men, but sadly we are. 9/11 killed 3,000 Americans, give or take, which is way, way less than the collateral damage in the Afghan and Iraq wars — I’d just like America to not go on a killing spree in response to this attack. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have as little blood on my hands as possible.

    I don’t care whether the bomber is white and male though. Or left-wing, right-wing, or upset about the lizard people. A female Eskimo bomber would be a novelty, how about one of those? Upset with her thesis advisor who happened to be running in the marathon.

  17. Modulo Myself says:

    Sirota is basically right. If it’s a white person, the chances are higher that Americans will act like adults. The bomber will be an individual who has no real connection to any larger part of society. Contrast that with the invasion of Iraq, which was basically a war to kill Arabs because they are all potentially terrorists, and there you go.

    Of course, it’s possible one day that the white culture will start to be treated exactly as black culture often is–as a pathology, in this case one that makes whites ignorant and filled with grievances and unable to adapt to any circumstances.

  18. @James Joyner:

    In the wake of what looks to be a terrorist attack, an Arab man shouting allah’s name might naturally come under suspicion for a couple of hours until an investigation clears him.

    Can you point to any credible source that he was shouting Allah at the time of his arrest? The only thing I’ve seen is that he was running away from an explosion which prompted some proud Amurrican to tackle him for the crime of being foreign looking.

    Not loving this but not sure how to avoid reasonable profiling, either.

    It wasn’t reasonable profiling. There are two profiles for Islamic bombers. The suicide bomber, in which case he’d have been in little bits and pieces spread all over the crime scene, and the IED, in which case he’d have been well away from the bomb remotely detonating it. Neither of these profiles fits a guy in the periphery of the blast.

    Furthermore, there was a study I saw yesterday (which I sadly can’t find now) showing that of the people who have been convicted for bombing or attempted bombing attacks since 9/11, they were significantly more likely to have been motivated by domestic political extremism (either right or left wing) than Islamic extremism. If we’re only “reasonably profiling” have any 20-30 year olds with military ties that were injured in the blast treated similarly? Why haven’t the FBI been raiding dozens of apartments the last 48 hours?

  19. Latino_in_Boston says:

    This is exactly what I was referring to in my previous post.

    If this is happening now before we even know who the perpetrator is, then God knows what might happen if they turn out to be muslim.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    Plus the nitwits (Geller, King, etc.) who claim to be “serious people” but who are nothing but rabble-rousers.

    I want someone to take Pamela Geller and drop her dressed in a bikini in the middle of the Ultra-orthodox section of Jerusalem

  21. Spartacus says:

    James wrote:

    But we’d treat it that way if the perpetrator is black or Hispanic or Asian-American.

    This is not an apt comparison. Just about all of the one-off acts of domestic terrorism by whites is motivated by the same ideology. There is no common ideology among the very few (almost non-existent) non-white domestic terrorists. Consequently, you can’t point to the case-by-case approach we take to non-white domestic terrorists as the appropriate approach for white domestic terrorists.

    The approaches need to be different, but they are not. That is because of white privilege.