By Andrew C. McCarthy:
In Modern Times, his sweeping history of the 20th century, Paul Johnson recounts how Einstein’s theory of relativity, a strictly scientific principle, was contorted into relativism, a loopy social phenomenon, through a permanent campaign of serpentine rhetoric. It is, as Roger Kimball explains in The Fortunes of Permanence, a classic example of how a sensible concept or term of art that helps us grasp some narrow aspect of reality can end up distorting reality when ripped from its moorings and broadly applied.
Another good example is “lone wolf.”
Since Thursday afternoon, newscasters have incessantly told us that the late and unlamented Zale Thompson was a “lone wolf.” Thompson was the 32-year-old Muslim from Queens who attacked four New York City police officers with a hatchet on Thursday, breaking one’s arm and critically wounding another with a gash to the head.
Reading off the familiar script, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that “nothing we know at this time would indicate” a connection to terrorism. This, despite Thompson’s Facebook page on which he portrayed himself as a mujahed warrior superimposed on Koranic verses and called for “guerilla warfare” against the United States. Evidently, it is just one of those “violent extremism” coincidences that this “lone wolf” strike – translation: non-terrorist strike – occurred soon after the Islamic State urged Muslims in the West to “attack the soldiers of the tyrants and their police force.”
In addition to Americans, Europeans, and Australians, the Islamic State lists the “infidels” of Canada among its enemy “tyrants.” Thompson’s “lone wolf” jihad followed hard upon two separate “lone wolf” attacks in Canada this week. First, Martin Couture-Rouleau plowed a car into two soldiers, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Then, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo to death at the National War Memorial in Ottawa before spraying bullets inside Parliament (but fortunately killing no one else). Each “lone wolf” was killed in the aftermath, and each was reportedly a “recent convert to Islam.”
These latest atrocities follow last month’s decapitation of a woman at an Oklahoma food-distribution center by Alton Nolen, another “recent convert to Islam” whose Facebook page was a shrine to Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State. At the time, Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro noted that the Oklahoma attack was the latest of seven in the last few years by Muslim men acting alone. The count rises to eight if one accepts the Obama administration’s “workplace violence” rendition of the Fort Hood massacre, to wit: jihadist Nidal Hassan was a “lone wolf” – and therefore somehow not a terrorist – despite both his motive to prevent the U.S. soldiers he killed from fighting Taliban terrorists and his string of pre-massacre consultations with al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki (the imam who had ministered to the wolf-pack known as the 9/11 suicide-hijackers). At any rate, there are now so many “lone” jihadists we should probably start saying “clone wolf” instead.
So rote have the airbrushed news accounts of these incidents become that we could recite them in our sleep – which is exactly the condition those who write them hope to leave us in. We are to believe it is beside the point that the assailants happen to be Muslims. Sure, some may have been “inspired” by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, but journalists, taking their cues from government officials, stress that the murderers lack “operational” ties to any recognized terrorist organization. So, presto, each is sloughed off as a “lone wolf.”
That once useful term of art is now used to convey two carefully crafted, politically correct narratives. For government officials and investigators, the “lone wolf” label has come to mean the atrocity in question cannot be categorized as “terrorism,” no matter how many “Allahu Akbars!” are shouted as bullets fly, bombs blast, or heads roll. For the commentariat, “lone wolf” signifies that the Muslim in question – whether a lifer or a “recent convert” – has “self-radicalized,” spontaneously becoming a wanton, irrational killer.
These two story lines transparently suggest that the government has quelled al-Qaeda and that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. Though President Obama frequently makes both claims, they are delusional.
“Lone wolf” is actually a surveillance-law concept that signifies the antithesis of the government’s newfangled “no terrorism here” usage. Moreover, the term is utterly useless to our understanding of how, and by what, Muslims are “radicalized.”
The “lone wolf” concept goes back to the alarm that gripped the nation right after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. That alarm was heightened by the discovery that incompetent surveillance practices prevented the government from interrupting the plot. So after 9/11, national-security surveillance law was overhauled.
Unlike ordinary criminal investigations, which focus on penal law offenses, national-security investigations target agents of “foreign powers.” Legally, an international terrorist organization qualifies as a foreign power. So if investigators can show a person is tied to an outfit like al-Qaeda, they can get court permission to eavesdrop on him.
As a practical matter, though, many terrorism investigations do not unfold that way. Sometimes, investigators develop evidence that someone is preparing to conduct terrorist activity (e.g., he buys explosive components, he cases a bridge) before they can figure out whether he is connected to a known terrorist organization. Since involvement by a foreign power was the necessary predicate for national-security surveillance, the government’s inability to establish al-Qaeda’s role in the plot would result in the denial of authority to eavesdrop on the apparent terrorist – even though he might be on the verge of striking.
To prevent such a critical intelligence gap, Congress enacted “lone wolf” surveillance authority as part of the PATRIOT Act (see here, pp. 5-6). Significantly, the statute makes precisely the opposite assumption that government officials now make when they label someone a “lone wolf.” The law says that if a person is engaged in what appears to be terrorist activity, the involvement of a foreign terrorist organization should be presumed and need not be established. So as conceived and codified, the lone-wolf designation means the government should regard a suspect as a terrorist, not strain against all evidence and logic to regard him as a non-terrorist.
Under the federal statutory definition, “international terrorism” happens when a person engages in activity intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” If a person’s actions fit this definition, that is terrorism. That he may not have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State is immaterial . . . and the fact that he is a Muslim is not a reason to look the other way.
Read more: Family Security Matters