As much as law enforcement would have loved to have been lying in wait outside the Holocaust museum for suspect James von Brunn earlier this month, there are limits to how much they could have anticipated that attack.
That's because that shooting — which left a security officer dead — and others that have occurred this spring appear to have been the work of what the FBI calls "lone wolves."
Lone wolves are killers who come out of nowhere — with no links to terrorist and extremist groups — to attack alone.
"If a person makes a decision — 'I am going to do it on my own, I will tell no one, and I will leave no telltale psychological fingerprints anywhere around' — that is very hard ... to stop," says Clint van Zandt, a former FBI behaviorialist who profiles lone wolves. "Many times, law enforcement and others who study these lone-wolf type of individuals end up having to make a decision: Is this a lone wolf, or is this a lone nut?"
As a general rule, lone wolves fall into four categories: religious extremists, political terrorists, people who have long-standing mental problems, and those who just snap.
The young man who allegedly shot a soldier at a recruiting station in Arkansas last month was a Muslim convert who apparently was angry over what he saw as wrongful deaths in Afghanistan. Van Zandt says he would fall into the religious extremist category.
The Holocaust museum suspect had been nursing a lifetime of racial resentments and conspiracy theories. That kind of person, according to Van Zandt, is considered a political terrorist.
"There are going to be those who will say von Brunn just snapped, but if you go back and do a psychological autopsy of [von Brunn], you'll find that there were telltale indicators," he says.
Those indicators include racist essays von Brunn allegedly wrote and published on the Internet. He also had a clear mistrust of the government, so much so that in the 1980s, he stormed the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., and attempted to take the Board of Governors hostage. Von Brunn went to jail for that incident.
Trapping A Lone Wolf
The FBI didn't see the latest warning signs, however, because they didn't have von Brunn under surveillance.
And that gets to the crux of problem: It isn't illegal to be racist, so law enforcement can't move in, or in some cases even watch someone, until they have evidence that a crime might be committed. Von Brunn's rants are protected speech.
Sam Rascoff used to work intelligence issues for the New York Police Department and is now at the New York University School of Law. At this point, he says, it gets down to a question of resources and how best to allocate the manpower that the FBI and local law enforcement have to derail terrorist attacks.
"As a practical matter, it can't possibly play man-to-man defense against absolutely everyone who some day might translate some sort of hateful ideology into violent action," Rascoff says.
Because of the inability to play man-to-man, late last year the FBI launched Operation Vigilant Eagle. The idea is to reach out to white supremacists and militia groups and convince them to report outliers to the authorities.
"Sometimes the lone wolves are the dropouts from those groups," says Rascoff. "They are the individuals deemed by those very groups as too unreliable or unstable to actually play in the big leagues. So, by keeping an eye on the traditional groups, you might also be doing important work in protecting against the lone wolf."
That said, in the three most recent killings, that strategy would have been of little use. None of the men had links to extremist groups. Van Zandt says that is why trying to stop a lone wolf attack requires a combination of good luck and foresight.
"With 310 million people, there are a lot of people on the fringe of society," he says. "What we have to be able to discern is, who are the fringe of the fringe? Who are the ones so far out there that their ideation, that their thought process, is actually moving toward action? And how do we intervene before they take that action?"
And authorities have to find a way to do that without trampling on a suspect's rights. That's why one FBI agent said that when it comes to a lone wolf, the bureau's hands are tied.
Until a suspect is about to move, there is little law enforcement can do. And often by that time, it is too late.