While there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, most scholars of the phenomenon agree that its fundamental feature is the use of symbolic violence to achieve political ends, thus distinguishing it from mere criminality.
Both James Holmes, who killed twelve and injured dozens at a midnight showing of the new Batman movie in Aurora, and Wade Michael Page, who killed six and injured three at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, exhibited telltale signs of mental illness. In Holmes’ case, his psychopathy manifested itself in his decision to attack movie-goers, apropos of, well, nothing. His life story and his choice of target have revealed no evidence of a “selfless” political motive.  So far there is evidence only of criminal insanity.  He was not a terrorist.
Page, however, was a confirmed neo-Nazi, deeply enmeshed in the tightly knit community of white power rock music. He and his ilk hate most minorities and blame them for America’s ills – whether real or perceived. Page might have been crazy, but he was also acting on deeply held ideological convictions.  He committed an act of terrorism.
Some scholars have questioned whether a “one-off” act of violence committed without the support of a group is really terrorism. In fact, the history of the United States and the world is full of such behavior. In 1995, for example, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. This terrorist was motivated by a hatred of the federal government and consorted with anti-government “militias” and white supremacist groups – but joined none of them.
Just about a century earlier, a handful of French anarchists terrorized Paris by bombingbourgeois cafés, judges’ homes, a mining company’s headquarters, and even the French legislature. All the targets were chosen to draw attention to the supposed oppression of the masses by the country’s economic and political elite. But all of the attacks were carried out by individuals unaffiliated with organizations. Most of the bombers, such as the most flamboyant of the lot, François-Claudins Ravachol, were fluent in the violent rhetoric of anarcho-terrorism’s leaders and publications. Each eventually felt compelled to wage an individual war against tyranny.
The examples of McVeigh and Ravachol provide insights into two of the most difficult questions asked of the lone wolf phenomenon, namely why does an individual terrorist strike when he does and should anyone besides the lone wolf bear some responsibility?
Lone wolves usually act on sentiments that exist in milder forms among sizable minorities of the population. In the case of McVeigh, his violent racism and anti-government hatred were radical versions of long-held American sentiments. In his day, Ravachol expressed with bombs what many activists invoked in words. Such narratives of disenfranchisement, righteous indignation, and fear – whether coming from the left or the right – have long made extensive inroads into the mainstream, where they exist along a continuum. The more mainstream the expression of the narrative, the more muted – or perhaps just coded – are the expressions of violence; the more fringe the discourse, the more explicit the violence.
The critical observation is that lone wolves are convinced that they are acting on behalf of like-minded believers who are simply too scared to act themselves. The violence can be touched off by many things, such as the individual’s sense that a political or cultural crisis is at hand and that only direct action can spark real change. Perhaps there is a growing sense that the movement is under assault and can only survive via violence.
While only the individual who pulls the trigger or lights the fuse usually ends up indicted – assuming he or she survives the event – terrorist violence does not take place in a vacuum. Whatever the proximate cause, lone wolf terrorists almost always act on radical variations of grudges that are held by a surprisingly large number of people. For the citizens of a society that rightly values freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the principle of individual responsibility, how we decide to act on this observed link between violent rhetoric and behavior will likely be more a matter of morality than legality.
Law is associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, DC. He is the author of Terrorism: A History (Polity, 2009).