Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

The Domestic Lone Wolf Knocking At The Door

I. Introduction

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Tucson, Arizona on 8 January, several questions have arisen regarding the incitement and perpetration of political violence. Firstly, does this cruel act fit the bill as an act of terrorism? Second, how should the recent violence be viewed in the context of past incidents in the United States and the country’s current political climate? The implications of the shooting and the vitriolic campaigns to delegitimize domestic politicians are both very troubling; Jared Loughner’s recorded distrust of the Federal government and rants against its institutions are reminiscent of a previously convicted domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh. What effect, if any, will this incident have on the public debate about gun control in the United States? There is undoubtedly a major inconsistency here: we disarm populaces abroad in the name of freedom and liberty, while arming our populace at home using the same arguments.


II. Ideology, Delegitimization, and Leaderless Terrorism

As news trickles out from the authorities and former acquaintances of the suspected shooter, a fuller picture of a politically motivated and mentally unstable young man is emerging. Based on his rambling Internet postings and the electronic trail that he left behind, his political leanings appear to be highly erratic. One former classmate labeled him a “left-wing pothead”, but he also ranted on right-wing hot topics such as the gold standard and the dangers of big government. This may be a case of radicalization via literature: Loughner drew inspiration from a wildly divergent assortment of books including Animal Farm, The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. His political ideology, which we cannot presume fully to understand at this early date, seems scattered at best.

His paranoia regarding the government, however, is quite evident. His sometimes-incoherent writings accuse the government of trying to control his mind; he also asks those reading his work to trade in a new “currency”, independent of government-controlled grammar structures. If Loughner’s main goal was to draw attention to his paranoid political worldview, it easily falls within Dr. Boaz Ganor’s definition of terrorism as “the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians in order to achieve political ends.” In the field of terrorism studies, Ganor’s definition is considered very short and broad; some other definitions go on for paragraphs, and the United Nations and other international legal bodies have yet to settle on a universal definition of terrorism. However, regardless of the suspect’s probable mental illness, his actions still fall within the context of political violence directed against innocents. There is no sanity clause in terrorism. 

Even if Loughner is mentally unstable, the shootings in Tucson highlight a frightening trend in the United States. In recent years, countless steps have been taken by people on both ends of the political spectrum to delegitimize their opponents. Our democracy thrives on disagreement; vigorous and substantive debate is healthy. But what is not healthy are the repeated arguments that the other side’s points have no validation, no grounding in reality, or even stem from a lack of loyalty to the United States and its values. Proper public debate should expose the weakness of the other side’s argument and then apply reason, backed up by facts, to reinforce a desired outcome. What we have seen from both sides, especially since the polarized 2008 Presidential campaign, is quite different. Commentators and activists on both sides have contended that the opposing party has nothing worthwhile to contribute to the discourse – as if acknowledging the value of the opposing view were paramount to conceding defeat. Does American political discourse need to change before political violence becomes routine? America has a lot of soul-searching to do – we must combat the delegitimization of opposing political thought for the sake of our democratic process and the safety of our elected officials.

The delegitimization effort against Congresswoman Giffords began well before the shootings, when her campaign offices were vandalized during the 2010 mid-term elections. This vandalism, as part of a wider effort of attempted intimidation that included threatening letters, was shrugged off at the time as the actions of a few agitators. In the same manner, much of the commentary after Loughner’s attack has labeled the shootings as the actions of a lone madman – tragic, but relevant more to questions about gun control or our system of mental-health care than to broader issues of American political discourse. The most troubling aspect of this dismissal is that historically, in campaigns of delegitimization, violent outbursts by the insane have preceded attacks carried out by the sane.

One striking example is the 1994 massacre in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, perpetrated by extremist Baruch Goldstein. At the time, many in Israel were quick to brand Goldstein as insane; Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called him “a degenerate murderer”. Goldstein’s attack, however, was only one incident in the far-right-wing effort to derail and delegitimize the Oslo peace process. One year later, the campaign culminated in the assassination of Rabin himself by nationalist radical Yigal Amir. A court-appointed psychologist testified that Amir had “narcissistic and schizoid tendencies”, but was not insane when he committed the murder. Clearly, escalating delegitimization lowered the threshold for violence. History is replete with similar examples; we must all hope that Tucson was not a harbinger of the normalization of political violence in the United States. In the coming weeks and months, law-enforcement agencies will likely be conducting investigations into militant anti-government groups for any threats of escalation.

It would also not be surprising if the investigation into Loughner’s radicalization turned up books like The Turner Diaries. Serving as McVeigh’s inspiration to take up arms as part of a “leaderless resistance” against perceived government tyranny, the controversial work of fiction has long been standard reading for authority-paranoid extremists. Articulated by Ku Klux Klan member and radical theorist Louis Beam, the concept of “leaderless resistance” also fits the Tucson incident. Beam wrote that “[n]o one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them.” Of the four accepted structures of terrorism (conventional army/organization, cell system, and network are the other three), individual prerogative has the most nebulous boundaries. Asymmetric warfare analysts continually examine the methodologies used by militarily weak non-state actors in their struggle against militarily strong state actors. In “fourth-generation warfare”, leaderless resistance is a major – and escalating – challenge for government actors. A radicalized man or woman with no state or group backing and few ties to society, killing on behalf of a cause with little or no warning, is a very difficult threat to track and neutralize.

On the other hand, Loughner’s case may not be so clear-cut vis-à-vis terror models and structures. While Timothy McVeigh, like Yigal Amir, was undoubtedly a remorseless sociopath, he was not necessarily insane. He knew exactly what he was doing and the message that he was sending. He was found fit to stand trial, and a federal jury convicted him and sentenced him to death. McVeigh understood that his actions were an aberration of the worst kind in the eyes of society. He was the first American perpetrator to violate the old Brian Jenkins maxim, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” This no longer seems to be the case: terrorists today want both.

Loughner’s indiscriminate rampage after his attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords shows a lack of empathy and humanity that law-abiding citizens find hard to understand. There were repeated warning signs that Loughner was potentially violent. Many of his former classmates and teachers from Pima County Community College have since given interviews to the press stating that they were not surprised by the news that Loughner was behind the Tucson shootings. He had recently been removed from classes and his re-enrollment was contingent on seeking mental-health counseling. One student had been so fearful that she sat by the door, just in case Loughner “came into class with an automatic weapon”. However, on a legal basis, a jury is very unlikely to accept an insanity defense for Mr. Loughner – it is hard to imagine jurors showing more empathy for Loughner than he showed towards his innocent victims. There will surely be a future public discussion on the identification and prevention of these kinds of acts.


III. Gun Rights in America

Although sweeping change in America’s gun laws is unlikely in the current political environment, this incident may provide an opportunity to re-open the sensitive gun-control debate in the United States. We have the least restrictive gun laws in the industrialized world. Our Constitution enshrines “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, [which] shall not be infringed,” but our founding fathers could not possibly have imagined the world of automatic weapons we live in today. The Constitution is a living, breathing document; it has been changed several times in our history – mostly for the better. Amending the Constitution takes powerful lobbies, popular outrage, and time; but part of the beauty of the document is its ability to be altered to fit new circumstances. Even rigid constitutionalists cannot deny the adaptability and overall progressive arc of American law; it may change slowly, but it does change.

Jared Loughner, along with a spate of mass-rampage perpetrators (Columbine, Virginia Tech, et al.) in the last decade and a half, has also taken advantage of one of the greatest paradoxes between American domestic and foreign policy. Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Global War on Terrorism has sought to disarm anti-Western insurgents and terrorists overseas – while at home, our gun laws allow the open purchase of assault rifles and tactical close-quarter firearms. The hypocrisy is undeniable. The Glock pistol that Loughner used to gun down his victims was a semi-automatic weapon. With a weapon this portable and powerful, it is very hard to justify its sale without strict competency requirements that include a lengthy criminal background check and a serious mental evaluation.

These types of concealable magazined weapons, both modified with extended clips and in their retail form, are designed to kill people. In addition to defending homes, which the powerful pro-gun lobbies constantly restate in all of their arguments, concealable weapons also enable someone like Jared Loughner to kill and wound large numbers of people before anyone can safely tackle him to the ground. This is why licensing checks and waiting times must be altered to thoroughly evaluate a potential gun owner’s background (criminal) and capacity (history of mental illness or institutionalization) for handling a lethal weapon. There are many issues, including medical privilege and the strength of pro-gun lobbies, which will most likely prevent the passage of these kinds of drastic measures. However, in the same manner that citizens sacrifice some privacy to allow the government to monitor terrorist threats in the interest of overall security, there is a potential for a similar arrangement in the purchase of firearms.

Abroad, American soldiers on the streets of Kabul would not tolerate the open sale of such weapons to documented extremists and criminals. Many raids in the War on Terror have been conducted to get automatic weapons off the street – but in America we do the opposite, allowing people to arm themselves in the name of freedom and “a well regulated Militia”. The “right to bear arms” should be better controlled, and the “well regulated militia” should be defined solely as the National Guard. The Guard derives its authority to call civilians to active-duty military service from the representative government that we elect to serve us. The first step to stopping the next “lone wolf” is re-examining the Second Amendment in the interest of the people it was intended to defend.


IV. Conclusions

The coming weeks and months will produce a litany of findings into what happened at the Safeway Supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. Many will speculate on what could have been done to prevent the atrocity that occurred. The nation must mourn those whose lives were cut short, reflect on the nature of our political discourse, and move forward. We must be wary of the Lone Wolf knocking on our door – and the best tribute we can pay to the victims of this senseless act of violence is to disenable those who would perpetrate this type of crime and remain vigilant. Similar to reporting a suspicious bag on the subway, there is no shame in warning the proper authorities about an unbalanced person’s capacity to do physical harm to the fabric of our society.

Firstly, we must improve the system for mental-health intervention. Had Jared Loughner been legally mandated to counseling versus expelled pending counseling, this tragedy may have been avoided. Secondly, there must be better control over the purchase of firearms. Loopholes like gun show purchase with minimal background checks should be closed. Extended clips and the modification of weapons that further enable the ease of tactical use should also be monitored. Lastly, we must improve our political discourse in a meaningful way that will allow us to strongly disagree without delegitimizing opposing beliefs and those who hold them. We must also recognize that the founding document of our republic, shifting in its nature, allows for adaptation to the times. As a government and as a people, we must continuously weigh security versus the chasms between tradition, policy and modernity. While tragic and monstrous, the shootings in Tucson will force America to re-examine its perceptions of lone wolf terrorism, mental illness awareness and firearms laws.


Beam, Louis (1983), Leaderless Resistance

Ganor, Boaz (2005), The Relationship Between International and Localized Terrorism, published Institute for Contemporary Affairs, The Jerusalem Brief, Vol. 4, No. 26. 

Haberman, Clyde (1994), “WEST BANK MASSACRE: The Overview; Rabin Urges the Palestinians To Put Aside Anger and Talk”, New York Times, published 1 March.

Jenkins, Brian M. (1974), International Terrorism: A new kind of warfare

Lacey, Marc (2011), “In Arizona Court, Suspect Waives Bail”, New York Times, published 11 January. 

Perez, Barret and Sanders (2011), “Feds Depict Deliberate Plot”, The Wall Street Journal, published 11 January.

Raine, Marcus (1996), “Psychologist testifies Amir was sane when he shot Rabin”, The Jerusalem Post, published 13 March.

The United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, Second Amendment