After 13 years of a spectacularly destructive and unnecessary "War on Terror" it is disheartening that this must be said, but it's better to say it now, before its legend grows: fear not the "lone wolf." All you have to fear is the myth of terror itself.
Last week, a deranged man named Zale Thompson attacked four NYPD officers in Queens with an ax. One of the officers was left in critical condition. The attacker was shot and killed on the scene. The next day, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said, ""I'm very comfortable this was a terrorist attack, certainly."
In the sense that Thompson was trying to cause terror, then yes, this was a terrorist act. Many acts of domestic violence could also be considered "terrorist acts" by the strictest definition. We don't call them that, though. In America in 2014, though, "terrorism" is a loaded word with very specific connotations. In American in 2014, the phrase "terrorist act"—particularly in New York City—conveys the sense that this act is just one more in a long and connected line of direct assaults on our way of life, by subhuman religious extremists whose only goal is to kill and destroy us. Each and every "terrorist act" in America provides implicit justification for the "War on Terror," and for the enormous surveillance and security state that has grown up around us in the wake of 9/11. Declaring something to be a "terrorist act" is dreadfully meaningful. William Bratton knows this as well as anyone.
What did Bratton mean when he said that this random attack by a single man wielding the most rudimentary of weapons was a "terrorist act?" Specifically, he was signalling to the public the launch of a hot new trend in Things to Be Worried About: the "lone wolf" terrorist, an individual who has gotten himself radicalized and who sets out to inflict terror on the populace all by his lonesome. It's not just swarthy Middle Easterners you need to fear any more, America—anyone can be the next Bin Laden on your block. Question everything. Suspect everyone. Report anything.
"There is a growing number of these individuals out there," Bratton said last week, ominously. Law enforcement officials warn that anyone can fire up the internet, view ISIS propaganda videos, and find themselves radicalized and ready for war against the good folks of the western world. From the Wall Street Journal:
Last week's attacks in New York and Ottawa, Canada, where a lone gunman shot and killed a soldier at a national war memorial and then stormed Parliament before he was gunned down, underscore a rising concern of U.S. and Western counterterrorism officials: One-off, homegrown attacks are much harder to pinpoint and disrupt than the more complex terror plots that have been the focus of law enforcement and intelligence agencies for more than a decade...
New York City has one of the world's most sophisticated antiterror efforts, an apparatus built up after the 9/11 attacks, working with counterparts around the world. But the New York attacker, identified by police as Zale Thompson, wasn't on its radar. Police say that after the attack they learned that Mr. Thompson was visiting extremist websites, including those linked to terrorist groups including al Qaeda, ISIS, and al-Shabaab.
Already, Congressional leaders are calling for the police and military to be "on guard" against the new lone wolf threat. Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the detection of lone wolf terrorists is now one of our country's top security concerns. Terrorism, you see, has taken a new form, and the counter-terrorism industrial complex must respond in new and expensive ways. The implication of all of this is clear. Spending $60 billion a year on homeland security and $4.6 billion a year on the NYPD has not been enough to protect you from these mysterious, predatory animals that could lurk behind any door. More must be done. More soldiers and cops must be deployed. More intelligence must be gathered. More phone calls must be tapped, and more emails must be intercepted. All in service of stopping the terrifying lone wolf. You never know where he might strike next.
There is a better name for "lone wolf" terrorists: criminals. Zale Thompson, who attacked cops with an ax, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot up Canada's parliament building and killed a soldier, are criminals. The fact that they may have been motivated by online jihadi videos does not mean that they were something other than criminals. In the week before Zale Thompson's attack, New York City had seven murders and 388 felony assaults. Judging by the lack of William Bratton press conferences, none of them were directly inspired by ISIS Youtube videos. But all of those crimes had victims, who were just as devastated as the police officers who were attacked by Zale Thompson. Each of those crimes caused damage, just like Zale Thompson did. But none of them caused an entire city, or an entire country, to be terrorized.
Only government officials calling crimes "terrorist acts" can do that.