Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The Austin, Texas, serial bomber, 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, was, according to Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, a “very troubled young man.”
By every measure of investigative and tactical resolution metrics, Manley and his department did a masterful job of working closely with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – more commonly known as ATF – to identify and track down the diabolical mastermind of six detonated devices that killed two people, in addition to himself, and injured five. Yet many have criticized Manley’s genteel and ostensibly well-intentioned description of the bomber, who began his reign of terror with targeted bomb package deliveries in largely minority neighborhoods.
Police have recovered an apparent cellphone “confession” following a dramatic confrontation with the killer that resulted in him initiating an explosive device that took his life and injured a SWAT operator. We have yet to see the recorded message transcript, but Manley described it thusly:
“He does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate … it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”
This attempt at an understated characterization of the killer has resulted in some debate in media circles and on social media platforms. The Washington Post directly confronted the debate with the headline: “Austin bomber: ‘Challenged young man’ or ‘terrorist’?”
However, it would be unfair to presume that Manley was selectively characterizing the assassin in less condemnatory prose because he was white. When law enforcement officials brief the media in the midst of an ongoing investigation, they must purposely be curt and circumspect in their language and word choice.
And in addressing the question posed by the Post’s provocative headline, it’s important we define precisely what “implicit bias” refers to – the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.”
Any person who commits the type of atrocities that this bomber has is a deranged, depraved sociopath. He clearly exhibited extreme anti-social behavior, seemingly bereft of conscience. One needs no medical degree to make this clinical assessment.
Let’s also acknowledge that we exist in binary “pick a side” times. And the side you adhere to tends to assume the absolute worst about the other. Ergo, statements by law enforcement – instruments of the state – are certainly, and deservedly, scrutinized to the nth degree.
But should we assume the chief’s statement as an indication that white reprobates are treated differently, as a product of implicit bias, than a person of color would be in the commission of the same offense?
Well, over the past couple of days, internet content has proliferated highlighting a cascading selection of paint swatches: lighter the hue, you are “mentally ill” – a “challenged young man,” perhaps. Dare you possess a darker skin pigmentation, you’ll be damned as a “terrorist.”
Is this a fair characterization of society’s perceptions?
It has been my experience over a quarter-century of law enforcement experience that criminal motivations in mass killings often come down to these narrowly defined motivations: terrorism, hate, mental issues, anarchy, or a pursuit of the “rectification” of grievances and grudges.
And yes, often times there is overlap. Certainly, anyone who elects to end innocent lives has mental issues. But let’s explore some of the motivations I enumerated above.
Terrorism, by the standard the FBI employs, is related to the unlawful employment of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of specific aims.
When someone is identified as a “jihadist” – via social media platforms or written “manifestos” discovered in the wake of their shootings, bombings, or vehicular assaults – this makes for a fairly simple designation.
This should also apply – but often doesn’t – in the wake of a neo-Nazi or white supremacist assault or murder of innocents. The only salient differentiation is related to citizenship. US citizenship characterizes one a “domestic terrorist,” while those hailing from another country are labeled “international terrorists.”
What some have justifiably decried is the current President’s haste and almost demonstrable glee in rushing to Twitter-characterize a jihadi attack as “terrorism,” contrasted to his reference to the Austin bomber as “a very, very sick individual”
And defining something as a “hate crime” is a delicate endeavor as well. The definition is often referred to as criminal activity motivated by animus toward a person’s race, sexuality, religion or creed. But it is predicated on a necessary absolutism in gauging motive and may dangerously infringe on freedom of thought and expression.
As an experienced law enforcement professional, I have always ascribed to psychoanalyst Theodor Reik’s “third ear” listening technique that champions a gleaning of deeper layers of meaning in communication forms. So when Austin police initially surmised that the bomber’s motivation may have been to “cause mayhem and death,” my third ear intuited this may have been the work of an anarchist. After all, the purpose of anarchy is to sow chaos and disorder.
It could also be fairly concluded that the original three package bombs were addressed to and delivered to homes on the east side of Austin in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Law enforcement could easily conclude that this might have been the work of a white supremacist.
The fourth bomb, a tripwire switch, victim-activated device detonated on the west side of Austin injured two white males and was viewed as a target of opportunity bomb. Police have yet to identify the addressees on two packages shipped to a FedEx distribution facility in Schertz. If those packages – one that detonated and another that was recovered intact – were also addressed to minority residences, we very well could be closer to determining this serial bomber was directing his violence at persons of color – making it a possible hate crime.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Motive determination is an imprecise science and the pursuit of it must remain free of an investigator’s own internal prejudices. Rush to judgments should never be a condition of a fair, impartial, and unbiased process.
And sadly, the results of its pursuit don’t always end with a neat, satisfactory and complete conclusion. So, investigators, internet sleuths and US presidents alike should always endeavor to check their implicit biases at the door when seeking to weigh in on complex motivations.
As some things just aren’t so black and white.