Clarifying the Connection Between Family Violence and Lone Wolf Terrorism

This week The Conversation posted an essay that significantly misrepresents the evidence in, The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism. Today, authors Mark S. Hamm and Ramon Spaaij offer the following rejoinder. 

Rejoinder toWe won’t stop lone-actor attacks until we understand violence against women.” Jude McCulloch, JaneMaree Maher, Kate Fitz-Gibbon and Sandra Walklate. The Conversation, March 19, 2018.

Violence against women can potentially signal a forthcoming act of lone wolf terrorism, but only if the research evidence is adequately understood.

While Jude McCulloch and her colleagues offer some provocative comments about the dual threats of lone-actor terrorism and family violence, the authors base much of their argument on a misrepresentation of evidence presented in our recent book, The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism (Hamm and Spaaij, Columbia University Press, 2017). In so doing, they obscure the landscape of understanding about the nexus between violence against women and lone wolf terrorism. In the spirit of academic debate, we offer the following rejoinder.

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Violence Against Women is Often a Precursor Crime to Terrorism

Contrary to what the authors claim, we do not treat violence against women as “merely a ‘precursor to crime.’” The phrase “a precursor to crime” is unusual and not one typically used within the field of criminology. Instead, criminologists use the term precursor crime which carries a circumspect meaning. A precursor crime is defined as a crime that precedes and indicates the approach of another crime. The authors’ narrow and unorthodox use of the term implies that a precursor crime is unrelated to, or independent of, a subsequent crime. We use the term as it is conventionally applied by criminologists; meaning that violence against women may indicate the imminent approach of ideological violence. In this way, the term is useful for bystanders and law enforcement because it suggests that violence against women may precede an act of terrorism, hence steps may be taken to prevent it. Among lone wolf terrorists, there is nothing “mere” about their violence against women nor do we dismiss it as such.

Terminology Matters

Correct terminology is essential for understanding the terrorist threat and nowhere in our book do we refer to lone wolf terrorists as “deeply troubled men” as the authors contend. We avoid such gendered terms because five of the lone wolf terrorists in our database were women—all political assassins. Most loners were males, however, and we depict them generally as jobless, poorly educated ex-felons prone to mental illness. We describe lone wolf terrorists as alienated and unmoored from society, but never colloquially as “deeply troubled men.”

Conflicts with Women are Triggering Events for Terrorism

The authors further criticize our use of the terms “marital discord” or “personal conflict with a woman” to describe the catalyst events that ultimately lead to terrorism by loner actors. Yet that is precisely what the research shows. Our review of court documents, media sources and our interviews with five imprisoned male lone wolf terrorists (including America’s original Islamic would-be suicide bomber) indicates that their ideologically motivated violence was, indeed, triggered by such factors as marital discord, divorce, split-ups, arguments with women, or other conflicts with women. We are the first terrorism researchers to systematically document this relationship and provide numerous case studies showing how interpersonal conflicts with women served as a triggering event for terrorist attacks. Representing diverse points on the spectrum of violent extremism, these cases involve some of the most lethal American mass murdering terrorists in recent memory, including Jared Laughner, Naveed Haq, Keith Luke, Wade Page, Thomas Caffall, Jim David Adkisson, Christopher Dorner, Robert Dear, and Christopher Harper-Mercer. All told, these lone wolf terrorists used high-velocity firearms to kill and injure more than a hundred victims, including women, children, and police officers.

Damaged Masculinity and Warrior Subcultures

Digging deeper, we examine not only conflicts between husbands and wives and intimate partners, but also conflicts between sons and mothers. We couch the findings in a sociological interpretation by linking lone wolf terrorism to engagement with a warrior subculture that fuses violence with a “damaged masculinity” and then identify similarities with non-ideological school shooters like Adam Lanza. Ignoring these wide-ranging and original discoveries, the authors simply conclude that we fail to comprehend the “full significance” of violence against women in lone wolf attacks. The authors charge that we view family violence as a “mere detail” in lone wolf terrorism. The authors do not offer empirical or substantive justifications for their criticism of our study, however, thereby gainsaying The Conversation’s mission to publish research devoted to “Academic rigor, journalist flair.”

Family Violence is Not a “Mere Detail”

Finally, and revealing of their lack of thoughtful analysis, the authors point to one of our cases (out of more than 150 cases examined in the book) which they claim, “highlights a misunderstanding of the nature, dynamics and seriousness of family violence.” This is the case of a 39-year-old neo-Nazi from Belfast, Maine, named James Cummings, who attempted to build the first radioactive “dirty” bomb in U.S. history with the aim of detonating the device at the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. The authors get only part of this story right. It is true, as the authors note, that during his construction of the bomb Cummings subjected his wife to physical and psychological abuse. It is also true that Cummings’ wife enabled the plot by allowing her husband to experiment uninterrupted for more than a month with radioactive material inside their home without calling police. However, the authors are incorrect in saying that James Cummings “went on to commit an act of terrorism.” He did not. Fed up with the abuse, Cummings’ wife murdered him before he could act on his assassination plan. Family violence is much more than a “mere detail” here.   

How, then, does the Cummings case represent a “misunderstanding of the nature, dynamics, and seriousness of family violence” in acts of lone wolf terrorism? On that question, the authors are silent. They are also silent on another matter of critical importance to public safety.

Controlling Lone Wolf Terrorism Demands a Holistic Approach

Our research shows that not all lone wolf terrorists beat and batter women before they attack a soft target. Some of them have “normal” relationships with women, but still find the inspiration to arm themselves with semiautomatic weapons and slaughter innocents in churches, coffee shops, movie theaters, and music venues. While programs to curtail all manner of violence are important to civil society, programs to curtail domestic violence will not automatically control the specific threat of lone wolf terrorism. This conclusion calls into question the basic premise of the authors’ article: “We won’t stop lone-actor attacks until we understand violence against women.” That is not necessarily so and may be too idealistic for pragmatic policy in the area. Lone wolf terrorism is a phenomenon of such profound social complexity that it defies a single response. A responsible approach also requires a vigorous policy to strike at the heart of violent extremism itself.   

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