Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald announcing charges on December 1, 2021
On November 30, a mass shooting occurred at a high school in Oxford Township, Michigan. Four students were killed and several more injured. Unfortunately, the event itself was not especially unique; while the average American schoolchild faces astronomically low risk of ever encountering a mass shooter, school shootings do still happen on occasion, and this one was the deadliest since 2018. What was genuinely unique about the event, however, flowed not from the crime itself, but from the efforts of an enterprising local prosecutor: Karen McDonald of Oxford County, MI.
It doesn’t take a political genius to suspect that McDonald could very well have her sights set on higher elected office, and a headline-grabbing crime in the jurisdiction where she has prosecutorial authority is a perfect opportunity for heightening her public profile. Aided by a media environment which (as usual) combines just the right amount of lazy credulity and misplaced zeal, McDonald immediately set out to convince all right-minded citizens of her view that the shooting was not merely tragic and bad, but an act of “terrorism.” Respectable media outlets put out “Explainers” describing this as a “novel approach” — seeing as the shooting contained none of the hallmarks of what would ordinarily be associated with “terrorism.”
No US school shooting had ever been officially declared “terrorism” before in this manner. McDonald certainly did something “novel” then, and in fact set a brand new prosecutorial precedent — the kind of “trailblazing” action that any ambitious politician craves for their résumé. Announcing the charge, McDonald declared that it had been filed on behalf of the entire “community.” But beyond that, the stated rationale was mostly a combination of vague emotional appeals and cliches: she explained of the shooting, “if that isn’t terror, I don’t know what is.” Well, lots of things can potentially induce “terror,” but also would not be prudent for the government to prosecute as “terrorism” offenses. Ultimately, what McDonald has chosen to do is expand the punitive powers of the state in dramatic fashion.
Here’s the part of the article where I’m supposed to add the qualifier that “of course the shooting was unspeakably heinous.” But one of the luxuries of Substack is that these mandatory avowals aren’t necessary, because no sane person would deny the heinousness of a school shooting or need that to be clarified. Four kids are dead, we got it. What’s relevant for the purposes of this article is the “terrorism” designation assigned to the alleged perpetrator: a 15-year-old boy who expressed no political motives, insofar as the evidence produced has shown. He also belonged to no political organization, again according to the available evidence.
To the extent anything about the perpetrator’s motives is known, McDonald said the kid was caught drawing ominous pictures in class the morning of the shooting, including one of a murder, and also scribbled the words “help me” and “my life is useless.” A teacher spotted this, and it led to his parents being called for an emergency in-school conference. No immediate action was taken and the kid was allowed to return to class. Unbeknownst to the school officials, he had a gun — the same one his dad had purchased a few days earlier, possibly “for” him as a Christmas gift. Shortly thereafter he shot four students dead and injured multiple others. That is the gist of the current version of events as told by the local Sheriff and prosecutor.
The public was subsequently apprised by Karen McDonald that this was a crime of “terrorism,” which by extension would make the 15-year-old shooter a terrorist. In one of the more glaring examples in recent memory of extreme overnight “concept creep,” it was just taken for granted in most media coverage and commentary that the “terrorism” statute was obviously applicable in this newly-conjured context. Even though there’s no record of “terrorism” law being applied to a school shooting before anywhere in the country.
McDonald had the ability to bring this “novel” charge thanks to a “terrorism” statute that Michigan enacted after 9/11. If you go and look back at contemporaneous debate around the enactment of this law back in 2002, as I have, the idea that legislators conceived of “terrorism” in terms of school shootings is ridiculous. When people thought of “terrorism” during this period, as you might recall, they were generally thinking of spectacular Al Qaeda-type attacks. “September 11th was a wake-up call for everyone,” the now-deceased GOP state senator William Van Regenmorter declared, as he ushered the bill through the Judiciary Committee. “The issue of terrorism is real. We need to give our police agencies the powerful tools they need to protect us.” The suite of bills passed under his tutelage were kind of like a Michigan-specific version of the federal PATRIOT Act. Does anyone seriously think the late Senator Van Regenmorter had school shootings committed by 15-year-olds in mind?
So again: there is no indication that any of the elected officials who rushed to institute this law in 2002 — on a bipartisan basis, of course — ever entertained the possibility that approximately 20 years later, it could be used in the context of a school shooting. And why would they? Legislators frantically rushing to enact new policies post-9/11 thought they were dealing with waves of Islamist suicide bombers. School shootings, while bad, were generally not placed in the same conceptual category.