What’s the Difference Between School Shootings and Terrorist Attacks?

© Shutterstock

Early warning mechanisms to help troubled individuals receive help and support are necessary to prevent them from committing violence.

A recent school shooting in the US state of Washington and a lone wolf’s assault on the Canadian parliament in Ottawa are but two of the latest headline-grabbing incidents of homegrown violence. One had nothing to do with politics, while the other was classified as a terrorist attack perpetrated by a jihadist.

However, both incidents involved troubled young men grappling with personal problems and demons. Their actions are, in many ways, cries of desperation in the absence of badly needed help. They beg the question over whether criminalization and stepped-up security is an effective one-stop prevention tool, without developing mechanisms that provide early warning and help to individuals who are about to go off the deep end.

At the surface, Jaylen Fryberg, a popular freshman who, in October, opened fire on classmates during lunch at a high school near Seattle, appeared to be a happy student. He was a well-liked athlete who, shortly before he went on his shooting spree, had been named his school’s freshman homecoming prince. Fryberg, who killed himself during the incident, is no longer able to explain what prompted him to shoot fellow students and put an end to his own life. But the subsequent police investigation suggests he was angry at being rebuffed by a girl that chose his cousin rather than him.

By contrast, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a 32 year old convert to Islam who, in October, killed a guard at Ottawa’s National Monument and then stormed the Canadian parliament, had all the trappings of a troubled down-and-out individual. Canadian media reported that Zehaf-Bibeau had a history of mental illness and a criminal record, which included drug possession, theft and issuing threats. He was addicted to crack cocaine and spent the last weeks of his life in a homeless shelter. The Globe and Mail quoted a friend his, Dave Bathurst, as being told by Zehaf-Bibeau that the devil was after him: “I think he must have been mentally ill.”

Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, viewed on its own, provides insight into the recruitment tactics of the Islamic State (IS), a jihadist group that controls portions of Syria and Iraq, and its targeting of Muslims, including converts, who are troubled by a feeling of alienation, personal problems or mental issues. Lone wolves like Zehaf-Bibeau — who seek salvation by becoming part of a larger movement and look to give apocalyptic meaning to their lives — serves IS’ purpose. It is a state of mind that the terrorist organization understands, as is evident from its urging of Muslims to use whatever weapons they can put their hands on, including knives and cars, to launch attacks in their home countries.

And the Link?

But taken together, the cases of Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau raise the question of whether there is a difference between a school shooting and a politically motivated terrorist attack by a lone wolf from the perspective of applying lessons from psychology and psychiatry to crime prevention. Both Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau had issued cries for help in their own ways.


The Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau cases may differ in detail and motivation, but they both reflect societal problems.


Writing on Twitter, Fryberg warned the woman who had rejected him that: “Your gonna piss me off … And then some (expletive) gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it.” Several days later, he tweeted: “It breaks me … It actually does … I know it seems like I’m sweating it off … But I’m not … And I never will be able to.”

Bathurst, a convert to Islam, was perhaps the one person Zehaf-Bibeau appeared to confide in. Beyond telling him about his alleged persecution by the devil, Zehaf-Bibeau shared his plans to go to Libya to study with Bathurst, who suggested to him that something else rather than learning may be what was driving him. Zehaf-Bibeau’s apparent sense of alienation was deepened when the mosque that he and Bathurst attended asked him to no longer come to prayer because of his erratic behavior.

The school shooting prompted renewed calls for stepped-up gun control in the US. It also sparked debate about ways of ensuring that troubled students are identified early on and offered the assistance they need. By contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper denounced Zehaf-Bibeau as a “terrorist” and linked his acts to an attack two days before the assault on parliament, in which Martin Couture-Rouleau hit and killed two Canadian soldiers with his car. Harper said both attacks had been inspired by IS.

That may indeed be the case. Nonetheless, radicalism’s attraction is not uniquely Islamic. Canadian writer Jeet Heer suggests that militant political Islam has the same attraction for mentally unstable individuals as did anarchism for Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated US President William McKinley in 1901, or Marxism that prompted Lee Harvey Oswald to kill John F. Kennedy. “If you are alienated from the existing social order, the possibility of joining, even as a ‘lone wolf’ killer, any larger social movement that promises to overturn that society may be attractive. For a person radicalized in this manner, the fantasy of political violence is a chance to gain agency, make history, and be part of something larger,” Heer wrote.

The Fryberg and Zehaf-Bibeau cases may differ in detail and motivation, but they both reflect societal problems — whether they are concepts of misguided masculinity, in which young men feel inhibited in expressing emotion, or increased isolation and alienation as a result of prejudice against mental instability. Both cases illustrate the need to develop early warning mechanisms that help ensure troubled individuals receive the help and support that will prevent them from possibly committing violent acts. Rather than an approach that exclusively seeks to preempt terrorism through criminalization and increased security, this method is likely to prove to be a more effective safeguard.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock.com

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

One Reply to “What’s the Difference Between School Shootings and Terrorist Attacks?”

  1. The fact is that there is a specific problem with persons wanting to join a terrorist organization, being refused exit and having passport seized, and deciding to alternatively kill people in Canada (as in the two incidents in canada last week, or the US as with Hassan). That is a specific terrorist activity. Both terrorists in Canada communicated with a terrorist groups. attempted to travel to be with the group they joined, and when unable committed a terrorist act at home instead.

    The segue into gun control is equally strange. The Washington state shooter's gun was apparently the personal gun of a police officer in the family. There is not a single, no one proposal by Bloomberg, his front groups, Feinstein, Pelosi, that would have affected that one iota. Washington state's latest gun control ballot initiative would have had no affect either

Leave a Reply