Imagine that you’re in the FBI and you receive a tip — or more likely, pick up information through the kind of mass surveillance in which the national security state now specializes. In a series of tweets, a young man has expressed sympathy for the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, or another terrorist group or cause. He’s 16, has no criminal record, and has shown no signs that he might be planning a criminal act. He does, however, seem angry and has demonstrated an interest in following ISIS’s social media feeds as they fan the flames of youth discontent worldwide. He’s even expressed some thoughts about how ISIS’s “caliphate,” the Islamic “homeland” being carved out in Syria and Iraq, might be a place where people like him could find meaning and purpose in an otherwise alienated life.
A quick search of his school records shows that his grades, previously stellar, are starting to fall. He’s spending more time online, increasingly clicking on jihadist websites. He has, you discover, repeatedly read news stories about mass killings in the U.S. Worse yet, his parents own legally registered guns. A search of his medical records shows that he’s been treated by a psychiatrist.
As a member of law enforcement, what exactly do you do now? You know that in recent years, mass killings have become an all-too-frequent part of American life. There were the Chattanooga military recruitment office shootings; the Charleston church killings; the abortive attack on a Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas; the Boston marathon bombing; the Sandy Hook school slaughter; and the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and most recently, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Loners, losers, jihadis, racists — label the killers as you will — as a law enforcement agent, you feel the pressure to prevent such events from happening again.
Given the staggering array of tools granted to the national security state domestically since 9/11, it’s a wonder (not to say a tragic embarrassment) that such killings occur again and again. They are clearly not being prevented and at least part of the reason may lie in the national security state’s ongoing focus on “counterterrorism,” that is, on Islamic extremism. For the most part, after all, these mass murders have not been committed by Islamic extremists. From the more than 100 deaths of this sort since the Aurora shooting three summers ago, only eight were killed by individuals inspired by Islamic radicalism.
Soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft declared an all-out, no-holds-barred policy of terrorism “prevention.” Another 9/11 was to be avoided at all costs and a “global war on terror” was quickly set in motion.
Domestically, in the name of prevention, the government launched a series of measures that transformed the American landscape when it came to both surveillance and civil rights. Yet despite the acquisition of newly aggressive powers of every sort, law enforcement has a woeful record when it comes to catching domestic mass murderers before the damage is done. In fact, a vanishingly small number of them have even shown up on the radar of the national security state.