This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
On November 9, 2009, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, yelling “Allahu Akbar!” during his rampage through a facility that processes troops for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically targeting people in uniform as he went. His act brought the largest military base in the United States to a standstill and left 12 people dead and 31 wounded. It also plunged the U.S. media, military, and public into a crisis of naming: Was Hasan’s attack an act of “terrorism”?
The issue was more than academic. Since 9/11, Americans had been hyper attuned to the prospect of terrorist attacks. Hasan was a Muslim, a Virginia-born American citizen deeply critical of U.S. conduct in the “war on terror,” and a psychiatrist whose acquaintances described him as “mortified” at the prospect of an upcoming deployment to the Middle East. Understanding his attack as “terror” raised difficult questions about everything from U.S. foreign policy to whether survivors of this attack would receive combat decorations. Eventually, the wounded received Purple Hearts, and Hasan was court-martialed, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death. But through it all, the Pentagon insisted the Fort Hood attack was not terrorism but “workplace violence.” Rather than being an exceptional act, in other words, Hasan’s spree was classified as an all too familiar and all too American act.
Ten years later, at the close of the decade, the perverse normalcy of mass shootings is a given. The omnipresent threat of alien extremists intruding upon the “homeland” with waves of mass-casualty acts never materialized. (Attacks like the one by a Saudi military student in Florida this month are virtually nil.) Instead, the nation is wracked, time and again, by high-profile stories of Americans (usually white) mass-murdering their neighbors. Of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, six have occurred since Hasan’s attack: Sandy Hook (27 dead in 2012), Orlando (49 in 2016), Sutherland Springs (26 in 2017), Las Vegas (58 dead in 2017), Parkland (17 in 2018), and El Paso (22 in 2019).
Americans are subjected to ever broader and ever more invasive surveillance, hyped by politicians and consultants as tackling not just “terror” in the traditional sense, but mass shootings specifically.
When such massacres occur, they freeze the nation and launch a series of reactions that can seem almost ritualized. Shots ring out, and a school, a nightclub, a church, a concert venue, a big-box store, or an office instantly becomes a scene of warlike carnage. Unarmed civilians flee; heavily armored SWAT teams rush in. Soon enough, the shooter himself is accounted for, alive or, more often, dead by his own hand. Social media discourse convulses with competing impulses: lurid speculation over the shooter’s ethnicity and biography, dubious ascriptions of his supposed ideology or partisan affiliations, and, from some quarters, insistence on his anonymity. Public outrage peaks and then fades, replaced by exhaustion and resignation, all tinged with apprehension over the next shooting — because everyone knows there will always be another one soon enough, unlike the attacks Americans were told were certain to follow 9/11.
The post-9/11 “hardening” of public spaces against suicide bombers and skyjackers has rolled seamlessly into the creation of campuses and office buildings designed to frustrate mass shooters. From streets to schools to social media, Americans are subjected to ever broader and ever more invasive surveillance, hyped by politicians and consultants as tackling not just “terror” in the traditional sense, but mass shootings specifically. The Department of Homeland Security, established in the wake of 9/11 to coordinate U.S. counterterrorism efforts, is today increasingly preoccupied with mass shootings.
Meanwhile, the idea of shared public space corrodes ever further. In the days after 9/11, Americans in many cities — not just New York and Washington — reported anxiety at the sight of low-flying planes. During the 2010s, places from airports to malls to Times Square have been convulsed by spontaneous panics over phantom gunshots. The buzzwords of the war on terror are now deployed by educators, who supervise active shooter drills — practiced in 96% of U.S. schools — and tell students that if they “see something, say something.”
The actual probability that any given American will die in a mass shooting is minuscule: One analysis puts the lifetime odds at one in 11,215. By the same token, the odds of any Americans being killed in an attack by a foreign-born terrorist are even less likely (one in 45,785). Yet the odds of dying in a gun homicide are one in 315. These are not killings at the hands of self-professed radicals on high-profile campaigns of political terror. Rather, they are murders that U.S. media discourse rarely deems “political”: vengeful men killing current and former partners in their homes, impoverished youth killing one another on the streets, police gunning down civilians in their cars.
Public outrage peaks and then fades, replaced by exhaustion and resignation, tinged with apprehension over the next shooting — because everyone knows there will always be another one soon enough.
When it comes to high-profile mass shootings, as with mass-casualty acts of public violence in general, whether something gets to count as “terrorism” is a moving target, determined by fickle calculi that weigh everything from the identity of the victims to the biography of the shooter to the place the shooting happened to whether or not a soundbite will play in a given news cycle. But fickle attention, inconsistent naming, and opportunism are already more than what happens to the steady churn of “normal” gun homicides in the United States. These go largely accepted, lamented but normalized; the question of whether they produce a kind of “terror” goes unasked.
A decade after the massacre at Fort Hood, another American perpetrated yet another mass shooting in Texas. This time, the killer was a white supremacist named Patrick Wood Crusius, a man virulently opposed to immigration and obsessed with conspiracies about a so-called Great Replacement. Rampaging through a Walmart in El Paso on August 3, 2019, Crusius specifically targeted people he believed to be Latinx. By the end of his spree, he had killed 22 and wounded 24.
Once more, the nation became briefly preoccupied with questions of naming. Was this an act of terror? How could it not be? The eerie parallels and devilish reversals could not have been more perverse and suggestive. Hasan saw himself as a religious warrior, a martyr who would stop his erstwhile comrades in the U.S. military from invading Muslim countries abroad. Crusius saw himself as a lone-wolf operator, a race warrior who would turn back the tide of immigrants he saw as invading “his” country. From a certain perspective, these men could not have been more different. But both men ultimately enacted their ideologies and grievances in a very similar, very American way: by picking up a gun and turning public spaces into theaters of death.
Even as the debates over naming roiled anew, the familiar cultural rituals played out as always. So too did the familiar consolidations of institutional power, the same doubling-down on an immense apparatus of policing, surveillance, and militarized social control. Two decades into an endless war on terror, Americans — a thoroughly terrorized people — have found yet new ways to keep inflicting the same old terrors on themselves.