Amok, Active Shooting and Mass Casualties Incidents: What if Categorization Fails?
Year 2- Week 8
Sometimes academia tries hard to establish useful categories to analyze a phenomenon with the healthy intent of comparing effects in an empirical way and to draw conclusions. We can deny its validity even in security studies, but the fact is that from time to time we find these categories closed and dysfunctional, especially in the moment of adding new variables.
We have a clear idea of what is a case of amok, a clear idea of what elements involve a pseudo-commando, a lone wolf and even a mujahid al-munfarid, the jihadist version of the lone wolf. But what happens in the cases where categories are blurred? Should we ask ourselves the same questions?
First of everything, let’s review our categories.
1.- Mass casualty incident. In fact, it is not even an operative category, but one taken from the health sector, which means “an event that overwhelms the local healthcare system, with a number of casualties that vastly exceeds the local resources and capabilities in a short period of time”. We don’t mind if we talk about a natural disaster (earthquake), an accident (a derailed train) or an attack (an active shooting incident). Our attention is focused on the outcome in terms of victims, and especially, on the required preparedness of first responders to manage the incident.
2.- Amok. In fact “amok” is not even related with mass casualties. It is a psychopathological cultural syndrome given in areas as Malaysia or Artic communities –the very same word “amok” comes from Malay “mengamok”, which means to make a desperate and furious charge- linked to extreme situations of stress or depression, whose physical manifestation is based on an explosion of rage and violence against bystanders. The term has become popular in reference to individuals that act in an aggressive irrational way, causing havoc. Therefore, in this definition we leave aside elements such as number of victims or modus operandi specifics. We won’t focus –or shouldn’t focus- our attention in the weapon of choice or the theater of operations, because they will be variable. Even the target is an irrational choice due to a more than possibly fictitious grievance.
3.- Active Shooting incident. Inside this broad category we may include pseudocommando characters alone –Virginia Tech- or in groups –Columbine-, with a psychological narcissistic profile close to a military behavior, or a radicalized individual prone to extreme ideologies as Timothy McVeigh or Anders Breivik – so-called lone wolfs, in the sense that they operate independently from any organization, but had ideological ties with far right, supremacist trends-, and as Sayyid Rizvan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, perpetrators of San Bernadino shooting, with a self-radicalized jihadist ideology. But also we could include a case of amok. In this case, it is not the number of attackers, and it is not even the underlying ideology or mental disorders of the perpetrator. It is the modus operandi and the “active” element. An Active Shooter Incident describes “the situation in which a shooting is in progress and an aspect of the crime may affect protocols used in responding to and reacting at the scene of the incident. Unlike a define crime, such as a murder or a mass killing, the active aspect implies that both law enforcement personnel and citizens have the potential to affect the outcome of the event based upon their responses”.
Thus, in an active shooting incident we will focus on a) modus operandi: on the one hand, a shooter implies the use of fireweapons, and this means a higher number of casualties than cold weapons such as a knife or an axe. On the other hand, depending on the subcategory (amok, lone wolf of jihadist lone wolf), we are going to introduce a key element in the modus operandi: planning, which sets the difference between a random attack and something envisioning tactical considerations. And b) an “active” response as the tool to determine the outcome of the attack.
What happens if categories fail?
I will answer with another question. Is the problem to rely on categories, or is it how to translate these categories to a broad roadmap of response to the incident? Someone may ask himself: is not an “active” incident when someone attacks bystanders with an axe or a knife in a train station or a promenade? Probably the answer is yes, since knowing how to respond may be a key element in the neutralization of the aggressor, or at least in mitigating the number of casualties. And if so, a second question: then, why does establishing accurate categories matter? This drives me to my first question. Establishing accurate categories matters because they provide information about how to respond an incident of this nature. The random behavior of an amok will give us a clue about how to neutralize him, which differs from pseudocommando and jihadist lone wolfs (or commando groups), where the planning of the attack may drive to situations of entrenchment, booby traps, hostage taking, deliberate intent of provoking mass casualties, and in many cases, suicide of the attacker… and even dying while killing.
Obviously in many cases reality will involve crossing categories. It is not so much, then, to establish a model of fixed response according to each category, but to keep them as frameworks to define what is the best tactical approach to mitigate and neutralize the threat. In other words, categories may be helpful in enhancing the “active” role of both law enforcement, first responders, and bystanders to manage potential mass casualties incidents.
 Ben-Ishay, O., et al. (2016), Mass casualties incidents: time to engage, In World Journal of Emergency Surgery, 11:8.
 The number of casualties in a mass killing is commonly accepted as three or more victims.
 Blair, J. Pete, and Schweit, Katherine W. (2014). A Study of Active Shooter Incidents, 2000 - 2013. Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C. 2014.