The Arbitrary Distinction Between Terrorism and Mass Shootings

These four weapons are believed to have been used by the the couple who killed 14 people and injured 21 others in the 2015 San Bernardino Shooting. (Photo is public domain)


One of the more significant storylines of the San Bernardino shootings is the storyline itself. Immediately following the shooting, speculation swirled as to whether or not this was terrorism akin to the Paris shootings, or a case of workplace violence. The meandering national discussion highlights a flaw in the terrorism discourse that exacerbates the field’s lack of reliable data and excessively parochial approach. Students of terrorism should pause to ask if there really is a substantive difference between terrorism and most mass shootings. Recent violent episodes such as the San Bernardino shooting, Boston bombing, and Fort Hood shooting highlight the somewhat arbitrary distinction we have made between terrorism and other episodes of mass violence.

Consider some of the common features used to define Terrorism. Terrorism is:

  • Violent, or presents the threat of violence.
  • Political in its motivations, and designed to send a message or impact policy.
  • Dramatic, and designed to have broad psychological effects.
  • Perpetrated by a sub-state actor.

Using the above criteria to examine recent events it is clear just how arbitrary the distinction is. The San Bernardino shooting was certainly violent and dramatic, but the perpetrators appear to have tried to cover their tracks rather than broadcast their political message. Even though the media has run with the perpetrator’s connection to IS, it still remains unclear if the event was equally motivated by workplace disputes. On the other hand, school shootings, like at Virginia Tech in 2007 or UC Santa Barbara in 2014, seem to fit the definition well even though they are not typically called terrorism. Both shootings were motivated by perceived social injustices, broadcast a manifesto, and designed to create fear through random violence.

This is not necessarily to say that we should start calling all episodes of mass violence terrorism or that there is no distinction between terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda or individual shooters like Virginia Tech’s Seung-Hui Cho. Rather, this is to highlight the fundamental similarities between individuals who choose to engage in terrorism or mass violence. In both instances, individuals unhappy with the society express their grievances through theatrical violence. If there is any distinction to be had, it is that terrorists typically try to enact change from the state while mass shooters try to enact change from society at large. Yet, this distinction is not significant enough to warrant the development of parochial research and disparate diagnoses for strikingly similar phenomena. Mass shootings have largely resulted in discussions on mental health and gun control. Terrorism, on the other hand, has largely written off mental health as a causal variable and focuses instead on political grievances and the social circumstances that breed violence.

What is gained by rethinking the way we label political violence? For one, it introduces new data to the field of terrorism research. In 2014, Marc Sagemen published a piece called “The Stagnation in Terrorism Research.” One of the main causes for this, he argued was a general lack of data. An intrinsic obstacle of terrorism research is that it deals with sensitive information that cannot be freely released. However, as Max Taylor highlights, the unfortunate effect of this is that the state has essentially “asserted a monopoly over attempts to control and understand terrorism.” As a result, “the notion of the independent researcher seems far removed from this area,” and terrorism research often resembles consultancy work in the service of the state. Shedding terrorism’s pejorative and highly politicized label in favor of finding the commonality, rather than distinctions, with other forms of political violence could help alleviate this issue by increasing the field’s serviceable data.

Perhaps more significantly, it encourages more cross-disciplinary collaboration. Bifurcating terrorism and mass shootings as political and psychological problems respectively is reductionist. This is not to say that terrorism has entirely sequestered itself from other academic disciplines, but terrorism studies have overwhelmingly focused on risk factors at the societal, rather than the individual level. This is not entirely inappropriate. As Jessica Stern points out, it is difficult to make gross generalizations about why individuals engage in even the most basic of behaviors, such as falling in love or choosing a career path, let alone engage in terrorism. Yet, there is a clear deviation in the questions asked by terrorism scholars and the criminologists studying mass violence. While psychology is a staple in studies of mass shootings, meaningful engagements between terrorism and psychology are rare. However, of the somewhat sparse literature available, there is evidence that terrorism and psychological trauma are connected. Similarly, biosocial perspectives on terrorism are almost completely absent from the discipline and, in my experience, even stigmatized. It was largely a group of criminologists, not terrorism scholars, who published Evolutionary Psychology and Terrorism earlier this year.

Solving these issues and advancing terrorism studies is not as simple as changing the way we talk about the issue. However, language matters. Terrorism is a pejorative label that carries significant influence on the way we perceive certain events. The standard of “I know it when I see it” might work for the news cycle, but is not sufficient for more rigorous inquiry. Both policy makers and researchers would do well to broaden their scope when talking of terrorism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s