Murder is easy if that’s all you want to do: kill people.
The DC Snipers, the sociopath John Alan Muhammad and his 17 year old protege Lee Boyd Malvo proved that in 2002, killing 15 people and wounding at least half a dozen more before they were caught by police, sleeping in their car at a rest stop on I-70 in Maryland.
Had they had a safer place to hide, Muhammad and Malvo might have been able to continue killing unrelated people who meant nothing to them for a very long time.
But serial killers are crazy people, and crazy people are often careless, which is why saner, more meticulous people, like police officers, tend, eventually, to defeat them.
In a way, terrorism, especially when the targets are as generic as whoever is in a theater or public street or square, is even easier to accomplish than serial killing because most terrorists don’t worry about getting away. Martyrdom, for them, is part of the package.
What makes terrorism harder to do than random murder is that it has a point, to instill public fear in the name of an ideology or particular goal.
Usually, future terrorists proudly proclaim their ideology and their sense of personal identification with it, even if they hide their murderous intent. Usually, they do this when they feel safe, within what they see as their own communities.
In America, for almost 50 years, it was that assumption of safety — that their neighbors were more invested in their national, ethnic or religious origins than rooted in this country — that was the terrorists’ fatal flaw.
Time and again, patriotic American Muslims have ratted out would-be disturbers of national peace and security because they saw themselves as part of “us.”
It’s this shared buy-in to America that has kept us safer than residents of Britain, France or Belgium. There, less-inclusive senses of national identity have encouraged Muslims, even Muslims whose families have been settled in their European homelands for generations, to see themselves as peoples apart.
Alienated people develop neither affection for nor obligations to their neighbors. They do not report fervent expressions of political or religious extremism to authorities. They regard the people who openly identify with organized hatred of the surrounding population and culture as “their problem.”
The pathetic rhetoric of the British Prime MInister Theresa May, “It is time to say enough is enough,” as if the Manchester theatre bombing wasn’t more than “enough” in itself, only predicts worse action.
Her proposals for more aggressive security service penetration of Muslim communities and for closing off some of the “free space” for dangerous discussions on the internet may sound comforting to some. But my guess is that both ideas are simply counterproductive.
More aggressive policing or snooping from outside the Islamic community will not draw it closer to the surrounding whole of Britain. Limiting freedom of speech on the internet won’t foreclose terrorist plotting. Both these “crackdowns” will only make covert terrorist plotters harder to track. Because both will alienate from the government and its security services more people whose assistance and allegiance they desperately need.
Generalized oppression begets generalized resistance, and to the degree oppression is targeted, it makes its targets all the more determined to resist. Thus any “toughening up” campaign against terrorism that is perceived as abusive by British Muslims is only likely to make things worse.
Where toughening up is working is on the battlefronts in Iraq and Syria. The impending defeat of the Islamic State and its ejection from its last major “capitals” of Mosul and Raqqa are making terrorism in the West nihilistic and beside the point.
The DC Snipers gained no public support. The Islamist radicals of Europe face a similar isolation. Their political goal in ashes, their religious credentials more and more impeached by their actions, they give only the pathological haters a reason to help them. They are already close to defeat, and with official patience and confidence, they will soon lose to the best and most enduring community of them all: the one of human decency.