The lone wolf is the new national nightmare, dramatized and amplified this week by the hostage-taking attack in Sydney, Australia. But there are two kinds of lone wolves – the crazy and the evil – and the distinction is important.
The real terrorists are rational. Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, had been functioning as an Army doctor for years. Psychotics cannot carry that off. Hasan even had a business card listing his occupation as “S of A” (soldier of Allah). He then went out and, shouting “Allahu akbar,” shot dead 13 fellow soldiers. To this day, Hasan speaks coherently and proudly of the massacre. That’s terrorism.
Sydney’s Man Haron Monis, on the other hand, was a marginal, alienated Iranian immigrant with a cauldron of psychopathologies. Described by his own former lawyer as “unhinged,” Monis was increasingly paranoid. He’d been charged as accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and convicted of sending threatening letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers.
For the disturbed like Monis, the Islamic State provides a script. It offers the disoriented and deranged a context, a purpose, a chance even at heroism.
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I suspect this is the case with most of the recent cluster of lone-wolf terrorist incidents, from the beheading of a fellow worker in Oklahoma to the Queens ax attack on New York City police. Normally in and out of mental hospitals, in and out of homelessness, some are now redirected to find a twisted redemption in terror.
Nonetheless, in the scheme of things, the crazies are limited in what they can carry out. They are too disorganized to do more than localized, small-scale damage. The larger danger is someone like Hasan, with his mental faculties intact and his purpose unwavering.
The still greater threat is organized terror, as we were reminded just hours after Sydney by the Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar that killed at least 148, mostly children.
The purity of such evil is clarifying. It banishes thoughts of negotiation or compromise. Indeed, in response to the Peshawar atrocity, the Pakistani prime minister suspended his country’s prohibition of the death penalty.
In the face of similar savagery, President Obama committed the U.S. to a military campaign against the Islamic State, which, if successful, would not just affect the region. Reversing the fortunes of the terror masters abroad is the key to diminishing the lone-wolf threat at home.
These groups inspire and influence because of their prestige, which depends on their successes – measured in growing power, territorial conquest and persuasive propaganda.
The first line of defense against lone wolves is, of course, protective measures: identification, tracking and pre-emption. But given the sheer number of the disturbed, unstable and potentially impressionable among us, and given the strictures that civil liberties have placed on prior restraint, that defensive posture can take us only so far.
The Islamic State has discovered that the projection of terror does not depend, al-Qaida-style, on sending expeditionary cells to kill infidels abroad. It can do so long distance by inspiration, by wire, as it were. Which is why the ultimate line of defense against lone wolves is to turn the fortunes of the warrior tribes themselves, the scriptwriters of jihad.
The great new specter is the homegrown terrorist. But he is less homegrown than we imagine. He is fed from abroad. Which is where, as ever since Sept. 11, the battle must be fought.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.