Is The San Bernardino Attack Different or is it The Same?

As facts and information regarding the San Bernardino attacks are still falling into place commentators continue to go back and forth about whether the attack was an act of terrorism, a mass murder or simply a mass shooting as we have seen over 350 times this year.

While it is clear that it is a mass murder and a mass shooting debate over whether it is an act of terror may continue, particularly as there are several overlapping and even contradictory definitions for terrorism and we are still unsure about whether the attack was intended to further an ideological aim. Pundits and columnist will also draw comparisons and identify differences between this attack and others, not least in that there were multiple attackers, and there was the use of both assault weapons and explosives as this BBC article points out. But if we really want to prevent these attacks, we need to look at how San Bernardino and other attacks are similar.

As we look at attacks of this nature, whether they are bona fide terrorist attacks, mass shootings, or acts of mass violence, we will find the same common elements. And the common thread between the Planned Parenthood attack, San Bernardino, Paris and beyond is that the attacks were committed by people who were isolated, polarized and angry and had access to assault weapons. This doesn’t mean that all of the attacks are the same or should viewed as the same but they are similar. It also means that if we want to prevent these attacks that we need to break the chain by focusing on the common elements, and the earlier in the process that we break the chain, the better off we will be.

Right now our response to these attacks is exactly that, a response, which is reactionary. And we need to do that. The attacks are unexpected, are most often unpredictable and we need to meet them with a tactical response. Once the attacks are launched we need to meet them swiftly and aggressively in order to contain the situation, to prevent it from escalating and to detain the perpetrators or remove the threat. But that doesn’t prevent the attack from happening, because it already has.

In most cases the individuals that commit acts of terror or mass shootings know that the odds of them getting out alive are slim at best. Although Robert Lewis Dear was arrested and the Paris attackers had an escape plan it is rare for those involved in mass acts of violence to survive but the tactical response of police forces does little to act as a deterrent. By the time that an individual has embarked on a course of action that will result in a mass shooting, the almost inevitable consequences, be they arrest and incarceration or their own death, mean little to them. By the time they reach this point they have been isolated and polarized to the extent that they have gone far beyond the point where they no longer want to contribute to society but they want to damage or even destroy society.

So how do we prevent these attacks? There are many that would argue that tighter gun control would prevent attacks of this nature but this isn’t a discussion about gun control. Arguably access to assault weapons is listed above as a common factor leading to mass acts of violence but if someone is motivated to kill 10, 20, or 30 people or more in a single act they are going to do something bad regardless of method available to them. And as I said, this isn’t a discussion either for or against gun control, it’s a discussion about ending mass acts of violence and if we want to do that we need to look way further back in process to far before the point where someone gets access to an assault rifle. Because if someone wants to launch an attack of this nature, they can do it with a gun, a vehicle, a bomb or use one of many other options available to them.

Access to assault weapons aside, the common elements of mass acts of violence are isolation, polarization and anger, and it is these factors that make the San Bernardino attack and others the same. If we can address these we won’t need to rely on a tactical response from a police force to contain the situation and prevent it from escalating beyond our control. And the earlier we address it the better. If we target the isolation we won’t have to address the polarization. Both of which are the seeds that when planted in fertile ground give rise to the conditions that create the anger.

While it’s clear that we need to maintain and to continue to develop capabilities that will allow us to react to threats as they present themselves as acts of violence or otherwise, we must also focus our efforts and apply resources further back in the process to prevent the isolation, polarization and anger that motivate individuals, not just to disengage from society, but to try and destroy it.