Oct 15, 2017

As with mass murderers so with terrorists

US authorities are still searching for a motive behind Stephen Paddock’s rampage in Las Vegas last week.  A number of ‘theories’ have been put forward, none of which are very helpful.  For instance, the fact that Mr.Paddock’s father was a bank robber and once on the FBI’s most wanted list has turned out to be rather insignificant and far from an explanation on why his son killed 58 people and wounded almost 500.

Of course the same tired refrain has been rolled out once again: this is NOT about guns and this is NOT the time to talk of gun control.  Whether or not this is about guns may never be resolved since the National Rifle Association and its supporters have effectively made any research on guns illegal since the mid-1990s.  Hence, any scientific rigour is not possible on this issue.

What has been used to replace the gun issue is the conviction that better mental health reform can prevent incidents of this nature from occurring.  Fully 63% of Americans blame ‘deficient mental health care’ rather than ‘deficient gun regulations’ for mass shootings.

Thankfully, unlike in the area of guns and violence, we do have excellent scientific evidence on the incidence of mental health issues and mass gun violence.  A recent piece in the New York Times by Richard Friedman, a clinical psychiatrist, is worth quoting at length to set up what I want to say about terrorism.

“…many mass murderers do have a mental disorder…but this has no implication for how to stop them…Of the 92 documented mass killings from 1987 to 2017 only 15% had any known previous contact with mental health professionals…whatever psychiatric treatment this small number had did not stop them from committing mass murder…Even if all these killers had been seen by mental health professionals, it is still highly unlikely their crime would have been prevented, because as a general matter it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict who is likely to become violent…To put it another way, most mass killers are gun-owning, white, angry, paranoid males, but it is also a fact that nearly all men with these characteristics will never commit a crime.”

As with mass murderers, so with terrorists.  All terrorists, at least the Islamist extremist ones with which I am most familiar, exhibit the same behaviours and attitudes (intolerant religiosity, hatred for Western laws and practices, obsession with jihad and martyrdom, etc. – see my book The Threat from Within for more details) and yet the vast majority of people with these characteristics never become terrorists.  This is what my friend Lorne Dawson at the University of Waterloo calls the ‘explanatory gap’.  And that gap is no closer to being closed than it was when we at CSIS identified it over a decade ago.  In other words, predicting the next terrorist is a fool’s errand and it is highly doubtful we will ever get there.

This is important as there are researchers out there who keep telling us that they have devised the next great risk assessment tool.  I am familiar with most of these and they are very good at making some points but they remain tools and will never be predictive, regardless of the claims by their creators.  This point was made in a recent TSAS (The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society) paper comparing several current risk assessment tools (you can see it here).  These tools are indeed useful and more work, ideally with real, intelligence-derived data, could make them better but the end goal of 100% reliable prediction will never be achieved. We are not headed towards a Minority Report society where the ‘precogs’ see future crimes and this will remain in the world of fiction, not fact.

We have to accept that bad people do bad things.  When we are competent and professional (and lucky!) we will stop a lot of these bad people before they act.  But we will never stop them all and it is probably a good idea for us to get used to that.