If you are picturing a cocky man at the mention of Lone Wolf – in a buckskin jacket, Stetson hat, cowboy boots, and half-cocked guns, all set for that quick-gun duel and that revenge and retribution, with or without the famous The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme playing in the background – know that you are not the only one with that picture. Never mind the latest Lone Wolf to make the news is as far away as possible from that image. In fact, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, if you believe his girlfriend, was supposedly “a kind, caring, quiet man.” Police are scratching the head: how could an apparently wealthy retiree, a former postal worker, IRS agent and government auditor, commit mass murder. Go figure that one, indeed.
Lone wolf, according to Randy Borum, who wrote What Makes a Lone Wolf Kill in The Conversation, has a long history to trace back. Borum pegs it at late 1800s, when “anarchists (mainly Russian and European) were calling for individuals to target government, authorities and the bourgeois as a way to bring attention to their cause.” Of course, they still hadn’t zeroed in on a catchy epithet yet – they had a mouthful explanation: “propaganda by deed”.
According to Jason Burke, who has done an incisive analysis of the Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist for The Guardian, “the image of the lone wolf who splits from the pack has been a staple of popular culture since the 19th century, cropping up in stories about empire and exploration from British India to the wild west. From 1914 onwards, the term was popularised by a bestselling series of crime novels and films centred upon a criminal-turned-good-guy nicknamed Lone Wolf. Around that time, it also began to appear in US law enforcement circles and newspapers.”
Within a few decades though, the motivations of lone wolf have changed. Gone are the days of reluctant heroic deeds. Something decidedly sinister seeped into the narrative. Burke says it came with the manifesto that called for “leaderless resistance” to the US government published by a white nationalist named Louis Beam. Much later, Tom Metzger, the leader of White Aryan Resistance, published on his website, a call to arms entitled Laws for the Lone Wolf. “I am preparing for the coming War. I am ready when the line is crossed … I am the underground Insurgent fighter and independent. I am in your neighborhoods, schools, police departments, bars, coffee shops, malls, etc. I am, The Lone Wolf!,” it reads.
It becomes clear then that over time, lone wolves have shed their “grudgingly good” skin and have come to personify “pure evil.” Only, since the description stops short at terrorist, at the mention of a lone wolf, so tinged is lone wolf in nostalgia, that the world feels free to plumb the depths of humanity for that reluctant element in him. So here we have CNN, for instance, doing an in-depth article on the mystery of Paddock’s brain, suggesting that he could have been mentally sick – a terrorist, on the other hand, is not a “human” and hence cannot appropriate the malaises of human. Never mind that the “mentally sick” Paddock managed to collect the firearms – over 40 in all – without even raising an eyebrow, much less the alarm.
Herein lies the rub: Lone wolf, the term in its modern usage was coined by the law and order and the media to make a distinction between acts of terrorism committed under the guidance of organised groups and acts of terrorism that were usually committed by individuals with few or no tangible connections to these groups, the term that has become a part of the everyday vocabulary of millions of people, is borrowed from a context that was far less sinister that it only serves to distort public perceptions. By being a lone wolf, in other words, a white-guy terrorist, one is able to remove himself from the act of terrorism. No matter how you look at it, killing 59 people and injuring 500 is an act of terrorism. And yet, Paddock is a lone wolf. And yes, this has legal implications. According to Justsecurity.org, domestic terrorism is not codified as federal crime, and that it doesn’t constitute an independent crime or trigger heightened penalties.
There’s more irony here: modern day lone wolves are apparently often not “alone”. Jo Thomas of New York Times quotes Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which monitors 2,100 hate sites on the web, in his article published in 1999, New Face of Terror Crimes: Lone Wolf Weaned on Hate, as saying, “It (internet) puts them all in the loop. They feel linked up. They’re not alone. It makes them part of a greater thing. It’s their ticket to the world.” Cut to the present. A day ago, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of Las Vegas police, admitted that it is possible that Paddock had help, that they find it “hard to believe” Paddock could have devised the plot without help as he also had a plan to escape the area alive.
So it seems the story of Paddock the lone wolf is playing out exactly as those before him. And yes, it should concern you. If nothing, Paddock has proved us, yet again, that while we are waiting for the world to be taken down by the big bad baddies – with beards most preferably – lone wolves are proliferating our streets, schools and airports, looking like us, attacking us from within.