Editor's Note: This security-focused assessment was originally published on Stratfor Threat Lens in July 2018; we republish it to share our views on the subject of identifying attackers in light of the two mass shootings in the United States the weekend of Aug. 3-4. It is one of many such analyses found at Stratfor Threat Lens, a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind. Threat Lens enables industry professionals and organizations to anticipate, identify, measure and mitigate emerging threats to people, assets, and intellectual property the world over. Threat Lens is the only unified solution that analyzes and forecasts security risk from a holistic perspective, bringing all the most relevant global insights into a single, interactive threat dashboard.
In 2007, a 14-year-old boy in Pennsylvania was arrested because he had asked a friend to help him attack a local school. The friend turned him in, and authorities subsequently unearthed his extensive correspondence with an 18-year-old in Finland who was a "Columbiner," or one of thousands online who are students of — and fans of — the Columbine attacks and the shooters. (We will not be naming any of these persons.) The timely tip dashed the 14-year-old's aspirations, but the Finn went on to attack a school, killing seven victims at random before committing suicide.
Understanding the ideology and tactics of mass shooters can help lead to the detection, and hopefully prevention, of mass shootings as the attacker progresses through his attack cycle. Occasionally, shooter's identities will be relevant to that analysis, but typically, they will not.
Like the Columbine killers, the 19-year-old shooter who killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 has a large online fan base, composed variously of well-wishers, people sympathetic to his perceived social and mental health issues, and — more chillingly — some who identify with him and want to emulate him. Some have even taken on his identity in a perverse online adoption of him as their avatar. Authorities have said they do not allow the shooter to read his fan mail.
Mass attackers who do not expect to survive their attacks are content with the notion that their posthumous identities will live on. As we have said, extreme narcissism plays a significant role in the mass attacker's mindset. Before his rampage, the Stoneman Douglas shooter said in a YouTube video: "With the power of my AR you will all know who I am ... You will all see. You will all know who (sic) my name is." Unfortunately for potential future victims, his words have proved true.
To stymie these efforts at notoriety, 100 law enforcement officers and academics urged in an October 2017 open letter that the media:
- not name perpetrators.
- not use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator.
- Stop using names, photos or likenesses of past perpetrators.
- Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.
We doubt very much whether the media will follow the first three of these principles any time soon: There is too much public pressure for details, and media outlets are, of course, businesses. We, however, will continue to prioritize analyzing how these attacks unfold and how the attackers prepare for them in the interest of public safety. Occasionally, shooter's identities will be relevant to that analysis, but typically, they will not.
We do not think a time will come when law enforcement can interdict every such attack, although all attackers are bound to the attack cycle and are vulnerable to detection if someone is looking for them. We as a society cannot fix rage, narcissism, suicidal tendencies, or the influence of online advocacy postings and terrorist websites. But we can draw attention to a central fact about all but a few active shooter and mass murder incidents: The attackers play it safe by targeting the defenseless. The correct societal response to that is contempt.
Occasionally, shooter's identities will be relevant, but typically, they will not.
Spokespersons for the police might consider a similar approach. While police richly deserve recognition from the press and the public when they resolve mass murders, they should avoid saying anything that might excite or incentivize would-be copycats. Moreover, they should take every opportunity to minimize, even belittle, the attacker's narcissistic actions. We know that police officers view these perpetrators with well-deserved contempt; they should be allowed to say so, or their spokespersons should say it for them.
Our intention here is not to taunt would-be active shooters, or to target shift them onto first responders (although we suspect most first responders wish these "stray mutts" would do just that). Our goal — tactical, not strategic; practical, not philosophical — is to create a competing counternarrative that has some of us, at least, saying to the world's would-be "stray mutts" that: "If you bear arms against unarmed, defenseless people, your identity and your spurious reasons will be ignored. If you are remembered at all, it will be not as the righteous avengers you imagine yourselves to be, but merely as the opportunistic predators you are." We urge this as a social engineering tactic, since undermining one key incentive of the would-be mass murderer could save lives.