To successfully preempt an attack, we need to focus on the “how” of terrorism instead of the “who.” We may not be winning the war against mass murder, but we are winning more battles. Consider the following:

August 21, 2019.  A mass shooting was prevented when an employee at a Marriott hotel in Long Beach, California, reported that a disgruntled co-worker had threatened to kill workers and customers. When arrested, police found several high-powered weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

July 13, 2019.  19-year-old William Patrick Williams rented a hotel room and bought guns and ammunition. His grandmother persuaded him to go to a hospital after he told her of his plan to “shoot up” a hotel and then commit “suicide by cop.”

August 13, 2019.  Tristan Scott Wix, 25, was arrested after his ex-girlfriend called the cops about a series of ominous text messages. Shortly beforehand, he had lost his job and girlfriend, was depressed, and told her he wanted to become known as the most prolific killer in American history.” 

Hindsight After an Attack

In the aftermath of an attack, people who had previously been in contact with the perpetrator often remember warning signs that they either ignored or dismissed. “Now that you mention it” or “I didn’t think he was serious” are all too common. 

In many respects, this is understandable. There are far more people who will threaten violence than will actually carry through with it. In spite of the fact that the prevalence of mass shootings has increased, they are still rare; think how many people go to school or the mall or to church each day without a hitch. Any researcher will tell you that it is extremely difficult to predict any event of which there is a low probability of occurring. 

Then there’s the diversity of motives and beliefs that may motivate the attack. Individuals with vastly different ideologies can share a common and violent goal and deploy similar tactics. Yet, because they are so different on the surface, their common strategies can go unnoticed. The steps a would-be attacker takes before conducting an attack are ideologically neutral – selecting a target; planning out their attack; conducting surveillance; conducting the attack; escaping the scene (if it’s not a suicide mission). Each step provides an opportunity for detection. 

In addition, while lone attackers have become more common, they are rarely alone in their planning. Most would-be attackers either reach out to other people for help or support or telegraph their intent to others through direct or indirect threats or statements. This is what we call “leakage,” and, as shown in the opening paragraph, when recognized and acted upon, it can stop aspiring attackers before anyone gets hurt. 

What We Should Look For

One of the ways we learn about what to look for in preventing future acts of violence is to interview people who knew – and observed – active shooters before they took their first shot. Among the most common troublesome signs leading up to the event included:

  • Social media posts with threatening or violent content
  • Escalating anger or aggressive behavior
  • Increased depression and/or expressions of suicidal ideation
  • Changes in behavior and appearance (increased drug use, erratic behavior, withdrawing from others)
  • Acting paranoid and/or preoccupation with revenge/retribution
  • Preoccupation with/purchasing weapons, making bombs, etc.
  • Studying other mass shooters
  • Talking about plans to commit mass violence

The majority of friends, coworkers, or family members who observed these behaviors were disturbed and/or worried by them. But many did not know what to do. We now know that we – neighbors, coworkers, friends, family members, students, or even strangers – are the first line of defense against a mass shooting. We’re seeing cases in which a plot was derailed by an everyday person who reported suspicious behavior.   

And its behavior we should be looking for. No mental health diagnosis is going to help us spot a wannabe terrorist or violent celebrity. No ethnic or religious background is a red flag for radicalism or rage. To successfully preempt an attack, we need to focus on the “how” of terrorism instead of the “who.” Mass shooters can come in any shape, size or color. But their actions are often predictable. And what is predictable can be detected.