The shadow of a new threat seems to be darkening the national security landscape: the lone-wolf terrorist.
“The lone wolf is the new nightmare,” wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently, and the conservative pundit wasn’t alone in thinking so. “I really see [lone wolves] as being a bigger threat than al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State, or the al-Qaeda franchises,” Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor, told VICE News. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, appearing on “Meet the Press,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The thing that I think keeps me up most at night [is] this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected.”
You could multiply such statements many times over. There’s only one problem with the rising crescendo of alarm about lone wolves: most of it simply isn’t true. There’s nothing new about the “threat” and the concept is notoriously unreliable, as well as selectively used. (These days, “lone wolf” has largely become a stand-in for “Islamic terrorist,” though the category itself is not bound to any specific ideological type.) Worst of all, its recent highlighting paves the way for the heightening of abusive and counterproductive police and national security practices, including the infiltration of minority and activist communities and elaborate sting operations that ensnare the vulnerable. In addition, the categorization of such solitary individuals as terrorists supposedly driven by ideology—left or right, secular or religious—often obscures multiple other factors that may actually cause them to engage in violence.
Like all violent crime, individual terrorism represents a genuine risk, just an exceedingly rare and minimal one. It’s not the sort of thing that the government should be able to build whole new, intrusive surveillance programs on or use as an excuse for sending in agents to infiltrate communities. National programs now being set up to combat lone-wolf terrorism have a way of wildly exaggerating its prevalence and dangers—and in the end are only likely to exacerbate the problem. For Americans to concede more of their civil liberties in return for “security” against lone wolves wouldn’t be a trade; it would be fraud.