DENVER — When Sandy Phillips saw the bloodbath in Paris unfold on her television screen, she knew instantly that hundreds of families would be getting phone calls like the one she got three years ago.
She has become painfully familiar with mass shootings since a gunman killed her daughter in a crowded suburban Denver movie theater, and she’s frustrated when pundits wonder if similar attacks on “soft targets” could happen in America.
“What ‘soft-target’ are you talking about? A school? Oh, gee, it’s already happened, several times. A movie theater? Oh, gee, it’s already happened,” Phillips said. “Who are we fooling? We’ve been living under terrorist attacks since Columbine. They’re just being done by our own people.”
In fact, mass shootings are increasingly frequent, and only a few dozen of the more than 215,000 people murdered in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were killed by Muslim extremists, despite fears that an attack similar to Paris could happen at U.S. stadiums, theaters or sidewalk cafes.
Tom Sullivan’s son Alex also died in the Colorado theater, where a deranged neuroscience student assembled an arsenal of weapons and attacked unsuspecting moviegoers watching a Batman film, killing 12 and wounding more than 70. He gets why James Holmes wasn’t called a terrorist, but he says the heartbreak is identical for families of the 89 people killed in the Bataclan concert hall last Friday.
“Those guys went in hoping to kill every single person in that concert hall,” he said. “The same thing happened here, his intent was to kill people.”
The parallels are haunting: The lighthearted Friday evening, punctuated by automatic weapons-fire. The panicked rush to escape a packed venue.
“It’s the same type of environment, maybe a little bigger, but it was the same types of things, the same types of responses,” he said. “People faking that they were dead, seeing the shooter walk by them, waiting for someone to say ‘it’s all clear.’ I heard all of those stories during the trial, and we’re hearing them again now.”
Mass shootings haven’t played a large role in the public debate over how to prevent a Paris-style attack because Americans tend to see them as isolated events. In contrast, violence inspired by political or religious causes creates a higher level of fear, said Jeffrey Simon, a visiting lecturer in UCLA’s political science department.
Simon, who has studied “lone-wolf terrorism,” said terror attacks tend to be coordinated and perpetrated by trained fighters, with ties to larger and more powerful extremist groups, and thus provoke fears that more violence is imminent.
“There’s more of the fear element when it’s tied to the ideology or a group because of the indication there may be more to come, that this is just the beginning,” he said.
Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi had survived another mass shooting, at a Toronto mall, six weeks before she was killed in the theater, argues that domestic gun violence also is contagious, and that mass shooters seem to inspire each other.
“Anyone who says a soft-target attack hasn’t happened here isn’t looking at this problem in a holistic way,” said John Cohen, a Rutgers professor of criminal justice and former counterterrorism coordinator at the Homeland Security Department. His studies have shown that, though their motives differ, a mass shooter is in many ways psychologically similar to someone who would be easily recruited to terror.
“These are all people searching for something that gives their life a sense of meaning and a cause that gives them a sense of belonging,” Cohen said. “From a federal perspective, we have placed a higher priority on mass casualty attacks motivated by the ideology of ISIS or al-Qaeda versus those inspired by non-ideological grievances, but that is beginning to change” as law enforcement realizes strategies for prevention, and police responses to the carnage, are the same.
But for those who have experienced it first-hand, the issue is much simpler.
“I can honestly say that I know how the relatives of those who died feel,” said Malcolm Graham, whose sister, Cynthia Hurd, was one of nine black parishioners gunned down at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June.