A heavily armed man in his early 20s, acting alone but perhaps radicalized by political resentments, opens fire in a sacred public space, killing several innocent and unarmed people in a sad tragedy that immediately sparks a national debate about the face of American terrorism.

That's a reasonable distillation of the two horrific acts of domestic terrorism that dominated headlines lately: the shooting deaths of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church last month, followed by the slaughter of five U.S. Marines in Tennessee last week. How similar, if at all, are the two terrorist sprees?


As I argued in this space a month ago, dismissing individual terrorists as isolated cases is a dangerous reflex. Even if they never coordinated with nor communicated their plans to anyone, "lone" gunmen almost always inherit from others the maleficent ideas they put into action. Statements by and photographs of Dylann Roof, who is charged with killing nine African Americans at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, include bizarre, white supremacist ideas. Those views didn't arise from the mist; they were bred and nurtured by others, even if unwittingly so.

As for Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, perhaps we will learn that the Tennessee terrorist was rebuffed in some attempt to join the U.S. military, or that there he was personally connected in some way to the two military facilities or the personnel he attacked. But for now the murder of what appears to be complete strangers — and uniformed military personnel, at that — strongly suggest that Mr. Abdulazeez harbored some sort of anti-American political agenda.

Perhaps Mr. Abdulazeez, a college graduate described by some people who knew him as smart and engaging, was radicalized during a trip to the Middle East he is believed to have made a few years ago. Details are murky, and because he was killed by authorities we may never know his motives for sure.

Presuming that twisted ideological agendas motivated both the Tennessee and South Carolina terrorists, the real challenge is figuring out what can be done to prevent these episodes.

Changing the gun laws probably won't make a difference.

On one hand, these are not the sort of accidental shootings, suicides or crimes of passion that stronger gun control laws would reduce. Conversely, although I agree with gun rights advocates who argue that unarmed military recruiters working in a shopping mall should be able to arm themselves, expanding conceal-and-carry laws for the public at large is no solution either. We should presume that any person determined to acquire a gun, legally or not, is equally capable of executing a plan to use that gun to kill people whether those nearby are also armed.

Blaming the power of the Internet to spread malicious content, or to permit hate groups to organize and plan attacks, is another dead end.

At least three black churches have been set on fire across the South since the Charleston episode, and three others have also burned, though investigators have not yet ruled their fires arson. Perhaps these incidents, spread across cities in four states, were conducted by a single individual or a small group of people coordinating online. But isn't it just as plausible that copy-cat soloists are trying to convey their sick approval of the Charleston murders? Either way, black church bombings and other forms of racial intimidation long preceded the Internet era.

And to those who might think domestic terrorism is an Islamic phenomenon in the post-September 11 era, think again: Attacks in the past 14 years by Islamic-identified terrorists are up, but they are outnumbered by an almost two-to-one margin by white supremacist terrorist attacks.

The sad truth is that there are no perfect solutions. Even if we ramp up public campaigns to increase public tolerance; even if law enforcement infiltrates and monitors hate groups of every stripe; and even if we place special emphasis on dissuading disgruntled young men who fit some set of profile from giving into their darker instincts, the fact is that it only takes a few individuals to carry out grandeur-deluded acts of vigilante terrorism.

There will be more, unfortunately, because one feature connects these strains of terrorism: A few malevolent individuals can exact a very large toll.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.