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Editor's Note: On Wolves

​In 1764, a series of attacks terrorized the Gévaudan region of France. For almost three years, the so-called Beast of Gévaudan killed up to 113 people and injured 49 more. The creature, described as an enormous wolf, attacked mostly women and children tending animals alone. As the killings continued, the people living in the area “descended into mass panic” and “the growing legend of the beast captured the attention of France and much of Europe,” writes Jay M. Smith in his book Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast.

The attacks stopped after hunters brought Louis XV the decaying body of an oversized wolf. But the speculation over the beast was just getting started. For hundreds of years “writers have used their evidence to advance one or another theory of the beast’s identity: the beast had to be a wolf or a wolf-dog hybrid, it had to have supernatural qualities, it had to be a psychotic human being or an animal trained by said psychotic, it had to be a surviving remnant from the prehistoric era, and so on,” writes Smith.

Despite clearly being one, the beast was not considered a lone wolf. That designation would take hold in popular culture in the 20th century. “From 1914 onwards, the term was popularized by a bestselling series of crime novels and films centered upon a criminal-turned-good-guy nicknamed Lone Wolf,” writes Jason Burke in his article “The Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist,” in the March 30 edition of The Guardian. “Around that time, it also began to appear in U.S. law enforcement circles and newspapers,” writes Burke.

According to security experts, the term has too easily been ascribed to terrorists who appear to be acting alone. Steve Crimando, principal at Behavioral Science Applications in New York City, discusses this issue in a special edition of the Security Management Podcast. Experts are urging that both law enforcement and the press turn away from the moniker and “use the term ‘homegrown violent extremist,’” Crimando says. “There is this idea that the term ‘lone wolf’ romanticized the behavior.”

Romanticizing terrorists and their behavior does far-reaching damage. Burke writes that using the term freely is a mistake. “Labels frame the way we see the world, and thus influence attitudes and eventually policies,” he explains. “Using the wrong words to describe problems that we need to understand distorts public perceptions, as well as the decisions taken by our leaders. Lazy talk of ‘lone wolves’ obscures the real nature of the threat against us, and makes us all less safe.” 

Another critical reason for abandoning the term “lone wolf” is to also abandon any fiction around the actions of terrorists and to concentrate on response.

In this month’s cover story, the focus is placed exactly where it belongs, on the first responders, security professionals, and law enforcement officials who help individuals and communities recover from an incident as quickly and as effectively as possible.