After attacks such as Nice, we demand answers. A requirement to understand is necessary both to protect ourselves in the future and to deal with the consequences of horror. What was the motivation? Are there links to other individuals? How did the killer arrive at the decision to kill?
That desire to understand is hardly a new phenomenon, although modern media have made it more pervasive. Joseph Conrad, in the complex character of Verloc – the anarchist bomber, double agent and provocateur of the The Secret Agent – was an early explorer of this territory.
White people who buy guns to shoot up cinemas and schools are put into one category: “lone wolves”. And inevitably the focus is on psychological and social problems. Individuals from a Muslim background are instantly placed in another category: “terrorists”. But when it comes to attacks such as those in Nice and Orlando, the distinction is increasingly unclear.
If those two attacks – as seems very possible – were as much about the inadequacies of the attackers as about Islamic State; if Isis, or simply the fact of the attention given to such mass killings claimed by Isis, is no more than a nudge that legitimises, in the perpetrator’s mind, mass killing – then perhaps there is no meaningful distinction.
As the distinction between organised Isis terror and lone wolf attacks fades, we face increasing difficulties in predicting and preventing similar atrocities