While it is early in regards to the investigation into yesterday’s mass shooting in Boulder, it is important to remember that not everything is terrorism. Even if it winds up terrorizing people. Terrorism in general and both domestic and what we call foreign terrorism (also doing business as just terrorism) have very specific definitions. And sometimes some acts technically fit the definitions, but would be better categorized as one of the forms of mass murder, such as serial or spree murders. Ted Kaczynski is probably the best example of this. Kaczynski’s terrorism campaign did have a political objective, however, the whole campaign and the motivations behind it were the result of Kaczynski’s delusions that arose from untreated mental illness. As such, Kaczynski’s behavior was far, far more similar to that of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam Killer, than to someone like Eric Robert Rudolph. Like Berkowitz, Kaczynski’s beliefs and actions resulted from delusions that were part of their untreated mental illness. Rudolph had clear political and religious/ideological, doctrinal, and dogmatic objectives he wanted to achieve and the motivations to undertake his campaign is rooted in the racialized charismatic evangelicalism of the Christian Identity movement he was raised in.
The now identified shooter in Boulder is alleged by his family members to have been suffering from untreated mental illness. This included paranoid delusions that he was being both physically stalked and cyber stalked because of his Muslim faith. So far nothing reported has indicated any self radicalization into any form of religious or political extremism. Just that he was introverted, had a temper, was bullied in high school, seems to be suffering from paranoid delusions, and, as a result, that his family believes he is mentally ill.
From The Daily Beast:
The motive for the nation’s second major mass shooting in a week remains unknown, but a family member said he believes the alleged shooter—a former high-school wrestler who was born in Syria but raised in Colorado—is mentally ill.
Ali Aliwi Alissa, 34, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview that his brother was paranoid, adding that in high school he would talk about “being chased, someone is behind him, someone is looking for him.”
“When he was having lunch with my sister in a restaurant, he said, ‘People are in the parking lot, they are looking for me.’ She went out, and there was no one. We didn’t know what was going on in his head,” he said.
He said he was sure the shooting was “not at all a political statement, it’s mental illness.”
“The guy used to get bullied a lot in high school. He was like an outgoing kid, but after he went to high school and got bullied a lot, he started becoming anti-social,” the brother said.
In one Facebook post, the suspect appeared to express fears that someone was targeting his phone for Islamophobic reasons.
“Yeah if these racist islamophobic people would stop hacking my phone and let me have a normal life I probably could,” he posted in July 2019.
He made similar allegations months earlier, accusing his former high school of hacking his phone. He asked Facebook followers for information about laws against phone hacking, and said he suspected someone was starting rumors about him, which “set off” the alleged hacking.
On Facebook, his politics appeared mixed throughout several camps. He shared an article rebuking Donald Trump’s stance on immigration, but also posted about his own opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
A day after the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, Alissa had shared a Facebook post from another user that read, “The Muslims at the #christchurch mosque were not the victims of a single shooter. They were the victims of the entire Islamophobia industry that vilified them.”
If – and it is early days in the investigation, so it is a big if – Alissa is in fact mentally ill and the shooting was as a result of his paranoid delusions, even if investigators do get an explanation out of him, it may not make any sense to anyone else. If Alissa is in fact mentally ill and he is put on an appropriate therapy regimen and the paranoid delusions go away, he may still not be able to provide a coherent motive for his actions even as the reality of what he did is able to finally sink in.
Mental illness is a weird thing when it comes to motivating violence. When I was a post-doc at UF one of my colleagues was beaten to death by her foster son who she was in the process of adopting. She’d helped to save him from the foster system and from a life of being largely abandoned by parents that couldn’t take care of him because of their own demons and problems. He loved her fiercely. And yet one day they got into an argument and something was said that triggered all the trauma that he’d endured from his birth parents, in the foster system, from schools and social services not set up to actually resolve these types of problems and he beat her to death with a baseball bat. Apparently he’d been writing about his anger for several days and had confided in his girlfriend, so this wasn’t completely spur of the moment. And he did realize what he did, panicked, tried to cover it up for several days by claiming she was out of town, and he is now in Florida’s maximum security prison where he’ll spend the rest of his life. However, I’m pretty sure that to this day, over fifteen years later, if you asked him what set him off that day or why he did it, he still cannot provided a coherent answer other than she made him angry.* The only real answer, as insufficient as it is, is that on that day, for a brief, unfortunate moment all of the years of trauma he’d endured came into contact with something that Barb said to him and now two lives were destroyed.
While we wait for more information to come out, it is important to remember that sometimes there aren’t answers. That doesn’t excuse what Alissa did yesterday, nor does it make it right. But it is important to remember in our hyper-politicized, 24/7, chasing the headlines, controversy creates cash news media culture that not everything is terrorism. Sometimes it is just a tragedy. But there are a lot of subject matter experts – both real ones and self promoting charlatans – on social media, as well as a news media that needs controversial content to attract eyeballs across multiple platforms, that has a vested interest in driving the events of yesterday into very specific directions. Not everything is terrorism. Not everything has a nice, neat answer or resolution. That doesn’t mean there may not be a political component to yesterday’s events, such as the ability of someone whose family says has untreated mental illness to be able to easily purchase a firearm. Or the NRA’s, as well as other similar groups’, stupid fight to remove every last reasonable firearms regulation at every level of government aided and abetted by every Republican member of the House and the Senate. All of these people, from the talking heads on TV to “terrorism” experts on twitter to the GOP senators that decided to put on a show during a committee hearing today on gun violence all have a vested interest in this being something that is considered newsworthy. Domestic terrorism, radicalized Islamic terrorism, an excuse for those commie Democrats to grab everyone’s guns, etc. There are two real issues here: untreated mental illness and easy access to firearms by everyone in the US, including those who are mentally ill. That’s where the focus should be. Everything else, unless some startling revelation occurs as to motive, is a sideshow intended to raise people’s visibility – terrorism experts, anchors and pundits, politicians, and special interest groups – and then monetize that visibility.
Just one quick, final note: this tragedy was definitely compounded because Alissa had ready access to a rifle he had purchased on 16 March. In this case, based on the reporting in The Daily Beast, a Ruger AR-556, which is Ruger’s AR pattern rifle. If Alissa had, instead, purchased a different rifle, Ruger or otherwise, it might not have made much difference in the number of casualties. Using a bolt action or lever action rifle would have slowed things down a bit as the rifle would have had to be manually cycled after each shot. But many of these manually loading rifles still come with either detachable box magazines or with integral to the rifle tube magazines. Not every non AR or AK pattern rifle is a single shot rifle. Every single non AR pattern rifle that Ruger sells with one exception – all bolt action – have either an integral tube magazine or a box magazine allowing the rifle to be loaded with between 4 and 10 rounds with the factory magazines. The same is true for the majority of lever action rifles. Getting caught up in a discussion of AR rifles is a rabbit hole. The one definitely confirmed problem here – Alissa’s ability to get a rifle – and the one unconfirmed, but suspected one – that Alissa was suffering from paranoid delusions as a result of untreated mental illness – are the two immediate concerns. Especially in regard to each other provided his family’s speculation’s about his mental health are correct. The issue is not that he purchased an AR 556 rather than the Scout or the Precision or a lever action rifle. The issues are that both his family and some friends suspected he was having mental illness related problems – such as paranoid delusions – nothing was done about that and that he was also able to easily obtain a rifle. And that the American political system has decided that mental illness isn’t really a public health crisis and that the solution to each and every one of these mass murders by mass shootings, regardless of motivation, is to do nothing because doing anything is somehow un-American and unconstitutional, none of which is true.
* If you click through to that article, you’ll see that my description isn’t lining up 100% with the reporters. I knew Barb, she was a friend and a colleague. I knew her foster son, though not well. I’m also the person that went over and packed up her things for her parents, as a favor for the departmental administrative staff, so they could take what they wanted home with them after the crime scene people and the local cops released the apartment and the apartment complex could have the apartment prepared to for a new renter. You’ll notice in the reporting that her son could not articulate an actual coherent reason for why he did what he did when he did it other than “she was holding me back” and he was angry. In reality he was doing well in school, was a successful athlete, and had a lot of potential opportunities he never would have had had he not met Barb. But mental and emotional trauma is a hard thing. And it sometimes leads people to do terrible things. And this was one of those times.