Terrorists Among Us

Americans have good reason to be afraid of another attack on U.S. soil -- only it's not going to come from the Islamic State.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

As they have been intermittently since 9/11, Americans are again terrified about terrorism. Those who think a domestic terrorist attack is "likely" in the next few months increased by 10 percentage points from March to September, while the percentage who think the country is "less safe" than before 9/11 rose by 19 points over the past year. This change in perception occurred precisely as the Islamic State intended with the dissemination of its horrific beheading videos of two U.S. citizens in late August and early September, which 94 percent of Americans saw or heard about — the highest percentage of any news event in the last five years. Despite this spike in fear, as several U.S. officials declared soon after: "We have no credible information that [the Islamic State] is planning to attack the homeland of the United States."

But the consequences of the Islamic State’s graphic videos were swift, significant, and, apparently, unshakeable. And that new-old fear of terrorism appears to have shifted a "war-weary" country’s attitude on taking military action. Polling conducted shortly before and after the videos were released demonstrated that support increased for U.S. airstrikes from 52 percent to 78 percent, for deploying U.S. ground troops from 19 percent to 44 percent, and for providing arms to Syrian rebels from 25 percent to 62 percent. This is unsurprising because people exposed to threatening television news coverage are far more likely to support hawkish foreign policies.

And, as it turns out, there’s untapped militarism in America’s strategic reserves. Since the Islamic State released its highly effective provocative videos, U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized the expansion of bombing into Syria, the Pentagon has deployed 475 more troops ("advisors") to Iraq, and Congress has approved funding to train, equip, and sustain 5,000 "appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition." Within two weeks, the White House, Congress, and the American people were overwhelmingly enthusiastic to start an open-ended military intervention against a 30,000-strong terrorist organization — an intervention that Pentagon officials acknowledge will last "in terms of years" and Obama warned will require "a generational change."

Contrast this unprecedented heightened fear of terrorism originating from Iraq and Syria with three brutal and malicious terroristic activities that recently occurred in the United States.

On Sept. 18, just after 3:30 p.m. at his mobile home in Bell, Florida, Donald Spirit shot and killed his daughter and all six of her children (ages 11, 9, 8, 5, 4, and 3 months) with a .45-caliber handgun that he had illegally obtained as a felon. Spirit then called 911, informing the dispatcher of the murders he had committed and telling her, "I’ll be sitting on my steps, and when you get here I’m going to shoot myself." He then sat on his back steps, and when sheriff’s deputies arrived, Spirit kept his word.

In the prior eight years, the Florida Department of Children and Families had conducted 18 child protective investigations into the family for abandonment, abuse, and neglect. Spirit, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had been involved in six of the incidents and was an alleged perpetrator in an additional three of them, and a 2013 review recommended that he "have no unsupervised contact" with his grandchildren. Thirteen years earlier he had fatally shot his son in the head in what was determined to be a hunting accident, for which he received a three-year sentence for illegal possession of a firearm.

On Sept. 25, Alton Nolen was suspended from his job on a production line at a Vaughan Foods distribution center in Moore, Oklahoma. His co-worker, Traci Johnson, had filed a complaint with the human resources department concerning an altercation she had with Nolen "about him not liking white people." After being suspended, Nolen drove to his apartment to retrieve a large-bladed knife. He returned to the distribution center at 4:15 p.m., entered the front offices, grabbed an employee, Colleen Hufford, from behind, and "immediately began cutting her across the throat with the large knife, with a back and forth sawing motion [and] severed the victim’s head from her body," according to the criminal affidavit. (Moore later told police that Hufford was not among his three intended victims, but that she had gotten in his way.) Nolen then cut Johnson’s throat and face before an off-duty Oklahoma County reserve officer shot at Nolen three times with a rifle, hitting him once and wounding him.

In 2011, Nolen had apparently converted to Islam while serving two years in state prison for the assault and battery of an Oklahoma state police trooper, during which he shouted Arabic phrases. Moreover, though the Cleveland County district attorney said, "There was some sort of infatuation with beheadings," he emphasized that the murder and attack "seemed to be related to his being suspended earlier in the day." Nolen was charged with three felonies, and the district attorney announced he will seek the death penalty.

On Sept. 26 at 5:06 a.m., Brian Howard, a field technician for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contractor, entered an air route traffic control center in Aurora, Illinois, pulling a black suitcase containing several knives, four gallons of gasoline, towels, and a lighter. After a half-hour, he posted a warning on Facebook of what he was about to do at the center. Howard said that the "immoral and unethical acts" of the U.S. government were why "terrorists and 3rd world nations hate us, because our tax dollars go to more unrest than rest. So we deserve the retribution from people who do not have the same ability for education, work and way of life." Minutes later, Howard selectively severed data and communications cables, destroyed computer equipment, and wrapped gasoline-soaked towels around additional cables and set them on fire. When paramedics arrived, they found Howard on the ground with his wrists slit and in the process of slicing his throat. His work colleagues theorized that Howard had possibly become despondent about an impending transfer to Hawaii.

Howard’s actions were devastating to hundreds of commercial airliners that had been relying on the severely damaged facility. Pilots and air-traffic controllers could not make radio contact, and the radar locations of the affected aircraft were suddenly frozen in place on air-traffic controllers’ screens. It was only after air-traffic controllers at nearby FAA facilities relocated the planes and provided the pilots with emergency flight routing instructions that all the flights landed safely. The FAA administrator described it as "an act of sabotage where someone willfully and knowingly damaged key infrastructure for our national airspace system." In the four days following the attack, there were 3,900 flight cancellations, with an estimated loss in economic activity of $123 million, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

It is a certainty that if any of these incidents were directly tied to the Islamic State they would have resulted in an overwhelming national outcry to do something, including the still further expansion of military objectives abroad and constraints of civil liberties at home. However, we have become fairly inoculated to such horrors, even those identical to what terrorists groups aspire to accomplish, when the perpetrators are Americans with obvious mental health illnesses and criminal backgrounds. Bizarrely, we are less afraid of the devastation of terroristic acts than we are of the motivations of the people behind such acts.

These three terrible crimes will not be labeled "domestic terrorism," apparently because they do not include the three mandatory characteristics listed in the U.S. government’s Code of Federal Regulations: intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. Yet, in many ways, such extreme violence and sabotage are worse than acts labeled "terrorism" because while terrorism has some degree of logic and strategic purpose that can be countered by well-known and widely accepted counterterrorism policies, countering random sadism and sabotage would require true and deep examination of many domestic policies and of ourselves. We treat "terrorism" in the common vernacular differently because it is ascribed to foreigners who are unlike us, whereas similarly savage behavior conducted by fellow Americans is a reflection of us. That terroristic acts conducted by Americans occur so frequently within the United States and receive such little public scrutiny or policymakers’ attention suggests that this sorely needed self-scrutiny will never occur.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.