Okay, first I need to admit that when I initially heard about the shooting and bombing, my gut reaction is that "oh no, not another idiotic al-Qaeda-wannabe Moslem convert." Considering the number of al-Qaeda inspired attacks all over the world in the past few years, it was very easy to follow your my feeling and believe that the killing was done by radical Islamists.
When I read an New York Times article noting that the suspect bought six tons of fertilizer, then I said, "no way." Radical Islamists don't typically use fertilizer. It is unwieldy, difficult to manufacture into explosives, and not to mention the difficulties in ordering it, since it will attract the attention of the authorities, especially if the one placing the order has a Muslim-sounding name.
Having found out that the killer is a right-wing Christian fanatic surprises me. Christianity has been in retreat, especially in Europe, and frankly, I'd expect this to happen in the U.S., but not in Europe, as the Europeans have been more and more secularized, with religion seen as some irrelevant relic from the past.
There are recent precedents of Christian extremism and radicalism in the U.S. The Hutaree, an extremist Christian militia in Michigan, for instance, was arrested last year for planning to kill police officers. Not to mention the Westboro Baptist Church, which seems not to understand that they are severely undermining their purpose by pulling the stupid stunts of protesting during solders' funerals.
So what happened? It is a very difficult question to answer and people can easily fall into two types of traps:
1. Just another madman who showed his craziness: This is the easiest answer to all these puzzles. Yet, this is also the worst trap to fall into. Not every killer is a nutcase like Jared Loughner. Psychopaths such as Eric Harris of Columbine fame had his own twisted rationale and logic in masterminding the massacre and cannot easily be lumped together with Jared Loughner. Mass murderers often act alone, but each murderer is different from the other.
2. Religion/ideology: This is another horrible trap to fall into. It is very rare even for religious fundamentalists or radicals to commit violence. There is a huge difference between being a self-righteous obnoxious person and a mass murderer. In that sense, it is very unlikely that these Westboro Churchgoers that I mentioned above will ever pick up weapons and start shooting. The same thing is also true with a huge majority of both radical Christians and radical Moslems out there. In fact, considering the number of religious radicals out there, the number of people committing violence is still very low and effective policing does an excellent job in keeping this number almost nonexistent.
Still, even with effective policing, this guy may fly below the radar. As the New York Times reported, this guy never showed much interest in violence or in the various known radical groups, which are always heavily monitored by police. Basically, this guy is a lone wolf that most likely worked alone. On his claim of connection with two other cells? I don't buy it.
In fact, this case is quite similar with the recent suicide bombing in Indonesia on April 15, 2011 that struck a mosque within a police compound in Cirebon, West Java. The suicide bomber belonged to a small unknown group that comprised less than 20 people with a grand ambition of building an Islamic state in Indonesia and who believed themselves to have connections with other groups in both Indonesia and the Middle East through Internet.
In reality, however, there was no link at all. These people were inspired by the writings of radical clerics affiliated with al-Qaeda and various other radical groups, but they themselves had no connection to the larger organizations such as Jamaah Islamiyah, let alone al-Qaeda. While there are reports that the suicide bomber was inducted by Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual head of Jamaah Islamiyah, several years before the bombing occurred, surprisingly even Abu Bakar Bashir himself condemned the bombing, declaring that Moslems were not allowed to attack mosques.
The striking part, then, is that it's very easy, in this era of technology and easy communication throughout the world, for someone to believe him or herself to be a part of global movement by joining conversations or discussions in which participants may agree with him or her. But whether such person is actually connected to a wider jihadist movement, reality frequently tells us a different story.
Similar to the Columbine shootings, while this shooting is shocking, its occurrence is very rare and done by a single or very few committed individuals who manage to lie low, escape detection, and launch their attacks.
In fact, the authorities may play into an attacker's hands by immediately cracking down on various extremist groups in Europe and the United States and silencing radical groups. Such crackdowns might raise a lot of ruckus about fairness, since radical Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, are pretty much unmolested by authorities. But more importantly, it may create an unintended effect of uniting radical groups which feel unfairly treated by the authorities.
Keep in mind that the best way to handle these groups are to let them talk themselves into irrelevance. For instance, in the U.S., a membership Ku Klux Klan is seen with derision, not as something to be proud of. Only a very tiny sliver of the society approves anything done by the Westboro Church. Being a skinhead Neo-Nazis in Germany carries a lot of stigma, seen not as a sign of respectability, but as of a juvenile delinquent.
Mumbai, and various places, where the terrorists exploded one bomb as a decoy and then launched another attack when people were feeling safe after having escaped the first blast.
Second is a complete and through investigation, hopefully proving my point that this is just a lone killer in order to show the limited appeal of violence in today's modern society.
Third, prevent overreaction. Like it or not, there are many radical and loathsome ideas circling around and it is very easy to get exposed to it. Yet, at the same time, to simply arrest or crack down on radical groups for espousing the ideas is a recipe for trouble - unless the group is openly promoting and getting involved in violence.