Mass Shooter and Terrorist: Two Sides of the Same Coin

There are more similarities between a mass shooter and a terrorist than differences. The main bridge that connects them is the violence they commit. 

The Media Views of a Mass Shooter and Terrorist

The media differentiates between a mass shooter and a terrorist in black and white filters. A mass shooter is someone who is male, white, and comes from a middle-class family. A terrorist is a male, Middle-Eastern, and an immigrant. A mass shooter goes on a rampage due to mental illness. A terrorist commits violence in the name of religion.

Even though a terrorist and mass shooter may seem different on the surface, there are many similarities between them.

Why Do Terrorists Retaliate Against Innocent People?

Reading the paper, “From Columbine to Palestine: A comparative analysis of rampage shooters in the United States and volunteer suicide bombers in the Middle East,” the reasons behind retaliating against seemingly innocent people are cultural. Here they are:

  1. Society Approval:  In the Middle East, suicide terrorism is often approved in the community. In contrast, a person is universally condemned if he or she commits a mass shooting.
  2. Eternal Glory in the Afterlife: Suicide bombers believe they will receive heavenly rewards for their violent acts. Mass shooters appear to lack a religious motive.
  3. Financial Assistance:   In some cases, volunteer suicide bombers appear to be motivated by financial rewards.  Monetary rewards may not be the primary reason for their violent behavior, but it is a convenient justification for individuals who have decided to carry out an attack. Some individuals who volunteer to execute a violent act are impoverished and claim their decision to become a suicide bomber is their last chance to provide a better life for their families. At the beginning of the Palestinian Intifada, individuals who volunteered to partake in suicide bombing were promised by terrorist organizations that their families would receive $2000 after the successful execution of their mission.

In Contrast

There is no evidence that rampage shooters in the U.S. have been motivated by money to carry out mass shootings.


  1. Gender: Historically people who volunteered suicide bombing missions were mainly male, but in recent years the number of women volunteers has increased in the Middle East. An example is the Second Intifada in Palestine in September 2000, where a significant amount of women volunteered to be suicide bombers against Israelis.  Also, following the invasion of Iraq, a substantial number of Iraqi women have also volunteered to partake in suicide bombing mission.

In Contrast

In contrast, rampage shooters in the United States have been nearly exclusively male. There have been incidents such as Latina Williams, who killed two fellow students at Louisiana Technical College and shot herself, and Amy Bishop, who opened fire at a faculty meeting at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, killing three colleagues and wounding three more before being arrested.

  1. Mental Disorders: In general research, there is a strong relationship between mental disorders and criminal behavior in the United States. Rates of mental illness have been found to be much higher in criminals than in the general population.

In contrast, researchers haven’t determined if mental health problems are a common characteristic of volunteer suicide bombers. Volunteers who participate in suicide bombing are believed to be rational people who are not suffering from any mental illness. Terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade recruit and sponsor a significant number of volunteers, but they claim not to rely on mentally ill volunteers. Their reason is that the mentally ill would be unreliable and ineffective killers, and would not be ideal for their purposes.

Cultural Differences

However, the mental illness difference between rampage shooters and volunteer suicide bombers may reflect cultural difference than individual ones. Diagnoses of mental disorders are subjective and based on the context of the situation. It’s possible that volunteer suicide bombers are assumed to be mentally fit in the Middle East, but in the states, doctors may diagnose them with a mental disorder.

In my previous posts, I wrote about possible theories on what makes individuals prone to the mass shooting and terrorism. The mass shooter and terrorist arguments are very similar to each other and it’s unfortunate what they entail.

  1. Troubled Childhoods: Many mass shooters and terrorists suffered horrible childhoods. Whether it’s living with alcoholic parents, being abused, and neglected, this is one factor to why these individuals turn to violent acts.
  2. Oppressive Social Environments: I will emphasize that individuals living in poverty and war-torn cities in the Middle East have a more dramatic living situation than individuals living in middle-class America. Despite that difference, individuals who are bullied, harassed, and teased at school or any community are at high risk of retaliating. The same goes for people who live in poverty-stricken cities in the Middle East; they may feel oppressed by their government or by terrorist organizations that prey on their villages.
  3. Low Self-Esteem– Terrorists and mass shooters seem to lack low self-esteem, but that’s not the case. Previous research has shown in general that those who lack self-worth are particularly likely to engage in both violence and suicide. Middle Easterners who volunteer for suicide bombing missions often exhibit low self-esteem. The low self-esteem may be due to living conditions under Israeli occupation and the inability of the Palestinian government to bring about change.
  4. Personal Crisis: Traumatic events can cause people to turn to violence to deal with their pain. University of Texas government professor, Ami Pedahzur, outlines some personal crises that have led people in Middle Eastern communities to volunteer for suicide bombing. They include accusations of adultery, unwanted premarital pregnancy, financial problems, job problems, poor health, and the death of a loved one. Honor is a coveted value in Middle Eastern society and is often more prized than life.

Rampage Shooters

Rampage shooters often respond to a personal crisis with violent attacks as well. A 2002 U.S. Secret Service and Department report on school shootings writes:

Almost all of the attackers had experienced a significant loss before the attack. These losses include a perceived failure or a loss of status, loss of a loved one, or a significant relationship. Robert Hawkins, a perpetrator of the Westroads Mall Shooting, was dumped by this long-term girlfriend two weeks prior to his rampage, fired from his job at McDonald’s, and was awaiting court trial for underage possession of alcohol. It appeared that a combination of all these problems took an emotional toll on him that he decided to strike.

  1. Revenge: Vengeance-seeking is a common cause of the aggressive and violent behavior. Most revenge incidents aren’t as extreme as these crimes. Terrorists and rampage shooters not only intend to get revenge on those who have personally harmed them but also against a category of people whom they have blamed for their problems.
  2. Fame and Glory: This is an extraordinarily unusual and common reason for both terrorists and rampage shooters. Prior research has shown that for many volunteer suicide bombers, the fame and glory that comes with martyrdom in the Middle East is a motivating factor to take part in these missions. Recruiters for suicide bomber missions can convince volunteers that in death they will be eternally famous even though they will not be able to experience it.

Killing for Notoriety

Similarly to terrorists, rampage shooters’ desire for fame and glory is rooted in a lack of self-esteem. Research R.W. Larkin labels this motive as “Killing for notoriety.” “The body count, almost always innocent bystanders, exists primarily as a method of generating media attention.” Similarly to suicide bombers, they leave manifestos, letters, and videotapes so they can continue their legacy.

So, what are solutions with all this information? U.S. school officials and law enforcement professionals have been encouraged to employ a fact-based threat assessment approach, which is when you look for specific behavioral and communication patterns. An example is when a person is suffering from a personal crisis, such as a relationship breakup, and has expressed a strong desire for revenge, therapy or any other intervention is crucial for prevention of a violent act. There is a similar method when looking for terrorists.  Instead of racial profiling, there are methods of “behavioral analysis checks” and “invasive questioning.”

It is nerve wrecking with the media inundating us with stories of mass shootings and terrorist attacks.  I know there are reactive methods of preventing school shootings and terrorist attacks. These methods may include arming schools or

We need to understand and address that the majority of people don’t wake up one day and decide to become a terrorist or a mass shooter. It’s a series of perceived threats and traumatic events that lead them to these violent crimes.

It’s difficult to predict and prevent a mass shooting. The same goes for a terrorist attack. It’s a multi-faceted problem that needs a variety of solutions. We need to understand that these perpetrators are acting out of desperation. Also, they are cut off from social and emotional support.

It’s important to provide social and emotional support services for people going through difficult times. It can help them feel less alone, less resentful, and may prevent them from violently lashing out. Empathy and having a listening ear are also helpful. These steps can lead to a better, peaceful world.

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