Misconceptions About Terrorism In The Aftermath of the Ohio State Rampage

Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt

The recent rampage on the campus of Ohio State University has been followed by much speculation based on a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings. Some observers have argued that professors should be carrying firearms along with books to their lectures and seminars. Others have renewed their demand to follow through on some of the pre-election rhetoric and deport all Islamic newcomers.

Actually, the college campus continues to be one of the safest venues in our society. Since 2000, there have been only 49 homicides on college and university campuses around the country compared against the United States as a whole which has had at least 10,000 to 15,000 murders annually. This is especially amazing, given the fact that most undergraduate students -- based on their youth alone -- are in the crime-prone age group and can be expected to commit a disproportionate number of violent offenses including murder. Keep in mind that aside from the killer who was shot down by a local police officer, none of the eleven victims of the Ohio State rampage lost their lives. This episode certainly had mass casualties, but it was not a mass murder.

An important misunderstanding is that Muslim terrorists commit most of the mass killings we have recently experienced both on and off campus. Actually, the United States has had relatively few fatal acts of terrorism since September 11, 2001. According to some sources, we have had 13 acts of political terrorism on US soil since 2001; that is, less than one episode per year. Almost every country on earth -- in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East -- has experienced vastly more terrorist attacks than we have.

At the same time, we lead the Western world in the commission of multiple-victim murders, but not for political or religious reasons and not perpetrated by Islamic foreigners. On the contrary, most mass killings in the United States are the work of white non-Muslim males who hope to accumulate a large body count for personal gain -- to go down in infamy, to make the headlines, to silence eyewitnesses to a robbery, and/or to get even with a spouse, boss, or bullying classmate. Every year, there are some 20 to 25 incidents of mass murder, only a handful of which can be considered political acts.

The Ohio State rampage was clearly an act of political terrorism. But in all likelihood it was also a retaliatory hate crime -- an attack meant to get revenge against Americans for the perceived maltreatment of Muslims. Previous research on hate motivated violence has shown that some offenders are emboldened to act violently when they are encouraged by rhetoric particularly from powerful individuals who espouse a world view according to which certain kinds of people are not worthy of being in America.

Since the presidential election in November, there have been hundreds of hate crimes perpetrated against vulnerable and under-represented Americans. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 bias motivated incidents targeting various minorities in the first 10 days following Donald Trump's victory. In Colorado, for example, a 12-year-old African American girl was approached by a classmate who said "Now that Trump is president, I am going to shoot you and all the Blacks I can find"

Such hate-motivated offenses are unethical and immoral; they target many innocent Americans who are peaceful and loyal to our country. In some cases, these attacks also inspire an escalation of brutal violence -- radical elements go on a "lone wolf" rampage to get even with their neighbors, co-workers, and classmates through the barrel of a gun, the blade of a butcher knife, or an automobile crashing into pedestrians as they walk to class.

The research on hate crimes has determined that victims of hate motivated violence are looking for three responses in the aftermath of an attack -- First, they seek public condemnation of the perpetrators by local political leaders; second, they expect a sincere pledge on the part of law enforcement that they will do what is necessary to protect victims from future violence; and, third (and most importantly), victims hope to see their friends, neighbors and co-workers reach out and assure them that they are regarded as valuable members of our communities.
Jack Levin is co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University and co-author of The Violence of Hate. Jack McDevitt is the director of Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice. He is also the associate dean for research in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.