Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Meanwhile, Other Conspiracy Theories

In the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting certain right-wing commentators had the knee-jerk reaction of suspecting that Islamic terrorists were behind it all. It is senseless to try to score cheap political points from the tragedy by accusing them of using the tragedy to score cheap political points. Their fears are sincere, if paranoid, and they assume that the rest of us are either woefully naive or reflexively polically correct to dismiss that possibility.

So, in the interest of fairness and rationality, why do we (or at least I) dismiss that possibility. Experience, for one. In that time that I have been able to follow the news, there have been many stories of mass shootings in the US, going back before anyone ever heard of Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. The vast majority were the work of isolated, highly disturbed individuals, acting alone. A small number (the Columbine High School shootings and the Washington, DC snipers are the only ones I can think of) were the work of pair. Not one of these mass shootings involved a larger conspiracy of any kind. Granted, just because it hasn't happened in the past doesn't mean it can't happen in the future. But, as the saying goes, when you hear hoofbeats, don't assume a zebra. If no US mass shooting in the past has been part of a larger conspiracy, don't assume a larger conspiracy absent some sort of evidence.

Furthermore, most mass shooters attack in familiar locations. Postal workers hit the post offices that fired them. School shooters hit the school they attended. Again, exceptions are possible, but let's rule out a horse before we assume a zebra. From the start there was evidence that the shooter knew his way around campus. To the paranoid, that is evidence that the terrorists scoped it out well in advance. A much more obvious explanation would be that, like most school shooters, this one was a student there. And surely terrorists scoping out a campus would be more likely to attract attention and suspicion that a student who writes disturbing poems.

This leads to the question of the target. I speak as one who immediately recognized the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building as the work of anti-government Americans, not Mideastern terrorists. The Oklahoma City federal building just is not a "sexy" enough target to interest Mideastern terrorists. Despite frequent claims that the Heartland is more "American" that coastal cities, an attack on the heartland just isn't a symbolic attack on American in the same way as an attack on New York City. The same applies to Virginia Tech. It just isn't a dramatic enough target.

And finally, when Bin Laden pulled off the September 11 attacks, he set himself a presumably unanticipated problem. How do you top that? How do you do a more mundane act of terrorism without appearing to lose your touch? After destroying the Twin Towers and killing some 3,000 people, a campus shooting is certain to look amateurish by comparison.

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