Crying Lone Wolf

Seeing the system sometimes means looking in the mirror.


Lately, our news in the US has been full of stories about young men who have committed crimes of horrific violence. Stabbings. Shootings. Bombings. Mass killings. Terrorism. Last week I came across this thoughtful analysis in The Washington Post:

The article informs us that people who know a lot about these situations, from the FBI and elsewhere, talk about the perpetrators as “apparent lone wolves”. These experts hesitate to describe the horrible events as “ideologically inspired”, even in cases where the men have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Ideologies aside, these conclusions ignore the very real impact of the larger systems these men live in. As a result, they keep us from coming to more holistic assessments of what to do about the repeated occurrence of such acts of violence.

This is not to deny that these young men may be sick and/or evil. But they exist in a series of larger systems: in families, in communities, in a society where these acts are possible. In addition to the work that is done to identify them as individuals, we also need to do the work to uncover the larger forces at play in their lives. We need to move beyond our uniquely American obsession with the mythology of the individual.

This obsession allows us to become willfully blind to the other forces at play. Do we do that because it’s too hard to examine these other aspects? I think it is more likely that it is too scary. If we start asking these other questions about what may be going on beyond these men themselves, then we run the very real risk of discovering that we are ALL somewhat culpable, because we are ALL part of the society that makes these acts possible.

Our blindness enables us to turn the perpetrators into The Other, which means they are Not Us. They are immigrants. Sometimes Muslim. They are sick. Diseased. Someone to fear. And fear is something we Americans have become really good at over the last 15 years. We have spent an uncountable number of hours and trillions of dollars teaching ourselves to be afraid.

Part of what moves me to think about the larger systems is that many of the traits shared by these young men, traits identified by criminal justice experts — bouncing from job to job, struggling to find friends or romantic partners, trauma at home, feeling profound shame, boastfulness, craving attention — could describe anyone. They could describe us.

Seeing these (and other) actors as diseased exceptions rather than as products of the larger systems of which they are a part ensures that these patterns of behavior will continue.