Serial Killers Are Now Terrorists

Try to keep up:

Leslie Van Houten, a one-time member of Charles Manson’s infamous ‘family’ is up for parole for the 17th time today….

“These are serial killers,” she said. “These would be domestic terrorists if it was today. So these are very dangerous people.”

Posted on July 12, 2010 at 12:54 PM46 Comments


Kevin Peterson July 12, 2010 1:05 PM

Terrorism is a fine line — you have to be nuts enough to want to kill people for a cause, but sane enough that the cause makes a little bit of sense.

david July 12, 2010 1:38 PM

Well, Manson was trying to start a race war between blacks and whites as I recall. Would that make Houten a terrorist? But I agree we should cautiously apply the label. Ted Bundy was no terrorist.

John July 12, 2010 1:52 PM

@John Hardin Happened a long time ago. Just counting the days until robbing a convenience store is prosecuted as such, a terrorist threat to our all american right to be fat and stupid. Reason is now seen as subversive, policy as socialism, and governance has been contracted out to the largest contributor.

Keith July 12, 2010 2:09 PM

I don’t think these people were “serial killers.” Deranged? Yes. Cold-blooded killers? Absolutely. But serial killers like the Green River Killer or Ted Bundy? I don’t know about that.

Terrorists? Nope, not at all. The DC Sniper was a terrorist. Tim McVeigh was a terrorists. But these sick bastards? Nah.

mcb July 12, 2010 2:44 PM

Leslie Van Houten:

Terrible? Yes.

Terrorist? No.

Lifelong resident of the California Institution for Women? I sure hope so.

Alex July 12, 2010 4:35 PM

I think David has a point. The Manson murders were serial killing in a deranged attempt to cause social and political change (race war). That would fit under many reasonable definitions of terrorism.

RH July 12, 2010 5:21 PM

And the English language bleeds a little more. I can’t wait to tell my kid he/she is a terrorist because they wont do their homework…

Davi Ottenheimer July 12, 2010 6:04 PM


Thanks for the pointer. Interesting case.

I’m not a lawyer but it looks like the defendant argued he did not know his two shotguns were in violation of a law because he did not know the exact length of the barrels when he sawed them off.

In other words, the case came down to whether someone that did not bother to figure out if they are in violation should be exempt from a law regulating the length of a barrel.

“a defendant may be convicted under G.S. 14-288.8 even if he did not know that the barrel of his shotgun was shorter than 18 inches”

The text of that law, defining WMD, is here

After a list of usual explosives/bombs it says “Any firearm capable of fully automatic fire, any shotgun with a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length”

I guess some might think the debate is about how much death and destruction qualifies a weapon as a WMD, but the real crux of the issue is a defense that claimed innocence because they were ignorant — couldn’t tell whether 13 is shorter than 18.

arthur conan doyle July 12, 2010 7:22 PM

The 21st century has become this big label-scam game. Every bad person is a terrorist, every good one a hero. And people eat this stuff up. Pitiful.

Clive Robinson July 12, 2010 10:34 PM

I for one would be happy if we dropped the “political rhetoric” lables and simply called them all criminals and treated them as such.

We have seen with NI “terrorist” killers being released for “political reasons” some of whom have then gone on to commit other atrocities against society. Others have gone abroad to provide training to other terrorist groups. Others have become major criminals in drugs, protection rackets and other “mobster” activities.

None of which would have happened if they had continued to serve their sentance as ordinary criminals.

Matt from CT July 12, 2010 10:53 PM

I wonder how long until “terrorist” and
“weapon of mass destruction” are
diluted into meaninglessness?

Of course, this may fall under be careful what you wish for. If you dilute the definition of terrorism to include acts well within the defined limits of ordinary crimes you might just see courts get more aggressive in issuing habeas corpus and other activities that don’t treat Gitmo with deferrence as being something unique and more war-like.

I was thinking about this on another board earlier tonight. Three elements in my mind that have always needed to be present for it to “terrorism” is a political motivation (which Manson’s gang had, to ignite Helter Skelter), targeted at civilians (the military is a bona fide target in warfare, and at it’s heart terrorism is war), with the intent to cause fear among civilians.

I think there also should be a fourth element that speaks to the level of coherent organization and/or planning that establishes political goals and how to achieve them through violent means leveraged to create fear and bring pressure to make the desired political changes.

That fourth element was present with, say, Tim McVeigh. From what I recall reading Helter Skelter many years ago, I’m not sure Charlie Manson was sufficiently coherent to meet that fourth test.

Gabriel July 12, 2010 10:53 PM

I believe the race war angle that some have mentioned might qualify them as terrorists. If we look at the MO of some Islamic terrorist groups, their goal is to start a holy war between Muslims and non-Muslims, where they believe Muslims will win when the dust settles. And they have a very demented sense of right and wrong, like the Manson family. (After all, who looks at some folks watching a soccer game and thinks they should be blown up for that?)

Or if you look at some of the white power terrorist groups that plot how to wage war against the Gov’t and other races (in addition to individual hate crimes), I believe some of them follow some ridiculous book (Turner diaries?) about a race war overthrow of the Gov’t, which was the inspiration for the Oklahoma city bombing. I would put the Symbionese Lib army in the same category, although they used “terrorism” for the opposite goal of racial unification via violence. (That went over like a lead balloon.)

All in all, the same type of deranged and morally void folks.

Matt from CT July 12, 2010 10:55 PM

I hadn’t read Clive’s last post before mine, but his “terrorists released for political reasons” fits my “be careful what you wish for” thought as well.

Defining ordinary crimes as terrorism, or terrorism as ordinary crimes both can have dramatic unintended consequences.

NobodySpecial July 12, 2010 11:08 PM

@John Hardin
A mentally ill Brit who broke into pentagon computers (well, typed a guessed URL into a web server) because he believed the US was covering up UFOs is fighting extradition as a terrorist.

The handy thing about extraditing him as a terrorist is that the US doesn’t have to provide any evidence to the UK – simply saying it’s a terrorism case is enough.

Tom T. July 12, 2010 11:11 PM

Bruce Schneier repeatedly attempts to undermine people’s confidence in TSA, DHS, CIA, FBI, and other hackronyms working diligently to protect us from terrorism. Therefore, he is on the side of the terrorists. Therefore, Bruce Schneier is a terrorist.

And the free press is a WMD, capable of massive destruction of public faith in an omniscient government. Why, Schneier admits his terrorism and his use of this WMD openly — look at that logo right there below his pic, “I Support Blogger’s Rights!” … a terrorist manifesto if ever there was one.

I suppose those of us who haven’t turned him in are part of his “cell”…

greg July 13, 2010 2:58 AM

@arthur conan doyle
its not a 21st century thing. It has always been this way.

Previously is was sympathizing with a political view point (Socialist). You could get fired from a university for just suggesting that you think there is space for the “red” socialist way of life…

so on and so on.

Terrorism and WMD are just flavors of the month.

Note also that there is always something that spells the doom of our time as well. This isn’t really new at all.

Clive Robinson July 13, 2010 4:26 AM

@ bob,

“Debra Tate is a moron.”

No she is the sister of one of the Manson victims that after 40 years still has not had closure.

In the UK we have relatives of the victimes of the “Moors Murders” doing exactly the same thing.

Part of justice is recognising if a criminal has changed their ways and is fit for parole. It is not supposed to take note of “public opinion” or sentiment stired up by the press etc (who get cheap copy and increased sales on stiring it up).

The down side of “public opinion” “making the choice” is it can cost LEO and civilian lives.

To be able to negotiate with a criminal who has hostages etc you have to have a realistic barganing position parole is one such bargaining point.

If the criminal does not believe the LEO etc because of past “public opinion” then they may decide to “go out in a blaze of glory” to get immortality, which is very likley to cost lives.

Clive Robinson July 13, 2010 5:26 AM

@ arthur conan doyle,

As @greg points out “It has always been this way”, and you could call it “boogie man” policy.

It could be said it actualy shows how little respect politicians have for the voters in that they raise childhood demons and put new faces on them to get us to go along with their inane proposals.

An alternative explination is that our politicians are so stupid their advisors etc treat them like frightend children to ensure that inane proposals with significant benifit “to their friends” get voted into law.

This sort of thing has been going on since the “king game” first got started and those not so thugish started the “God game” to get a slice of the action from those who were.

Either way our lives are controled by faux daemons and despots and their hangers on all held in place by the dillusion of the masses that they have some control via representational democracy.

The fact that Gitmo is still up and running should tell you who is realy in control…

anon July 13, 2010 6:14 AM

@ Alex

IMO, in order to be a terrorist, you not only have to be politically motivated (which the family arguably were, but your cause also has to enjoy some level of support from the outside. Otherwise, any psycho who thinks they’re doing “god’s work” qualifies.

Not a Hero July 13, 2010 9:05 AM

“The 21st century has become this big label-scam game. Every bad person is a terrorist, every good one a hero. And people eat this stuff up. Pitiful.”

Yeah, I really hated when they labeled that guy that ran away from a fire down stories of a fire escape a ‘hero’. I was like, what? he ran like a scared kitten! Running away is not heroic, running towards (with good reason) would be heroic, like what firefighters do, but running away is what normal people do.

Wes P July 13, 2010 9:27 AM

“These would be domestic terrorists if it was today. So these are very dangerous people.”

That coming from a person with absolutely no personal agenda regarding this matter… >.> Debra Tate might actually believe this woman is a domestic terrorist, but she’s a little too biased, I think, to be taken seriously in her use of terminology.

DayOwl July 13, 2010 10:31 AM

It is only a matter of time before the “terrorist” designation will be used against a citizen for the convenience of the state. The accompanying abridgment of rights will prove too tempting to pass up. The state doesn’t belong to the people, the people belong to the state.

BF Skinner July 13, 2010 10:59 AM

“These are serial killers,” she said. “These would be domestic terrorists if it was today…”

Well. Mass Murderer’s or spree killers really Ms Tate. Domestic terrorists…maybe…as it appears most of aggree–Charlie had a political agenda.

@Matt CT. I don’t agree with your forth test. The rational person standard in economics says only that people will try to make picks that enhance themsleves. Not that they’ll be any good at it.

This is why technical definitions with clear diagnostic criteria that can be empirically verified are so important.

Appeals to ‘sensability’ ‘concience’ are appeals to emotional parts of us that were wired for surviving on the savana.

“Stuff and nonsense, rot, half truths, mis-statements and obfuscation.” Said the individual with a loose grasp on critical thinking and an even looser grasp on language. (Okay her name is bachmann).

People in pain want to make the people who caused them pain to suffer for ever.
This is why victims are allowed to make statements but not judgements regarding their victimizer.

Problem as I see it is that many people (most?) hold views that there are many justifiable reasons and times for using violence. ‘Honor killings’ for example, I’ve heard Americans (from the south largely) defend the principal. And the golden oldies for politics ‘Fighting for Freedom’, ‘Resisting tyranical oppression’ ‘Defending our ancestral lands’ everyone loves a freedom fighter, nobody likes a terrorist. ‘Defending those who can’t defend themselves’. ‘Preserving the empire.’ ‘He takes green is green He who takes purple is purple. He who takes purple leader sash is leader.’

To people who are looking at violence that some regard as criminal others ‘understand.’

@anon “has to enjoy some level of support from the outside”

This is an interesting quality. And I think relevant but the implication is that what others believe is right (the standard) and what one believes is wrong. So the more people that believe a thing the more right it is. Consensus reality is right. Anyone attempting to change it is ‘wrong’. Until they do.

The few who believed in American Independence were wrong until they got enough people together willing to fight. But the ‘rightness’ of their cause wasn’t certain until they fought it out.

The war of succession…same thing. The Confederate south was wrong not because owning human beings as property is an obscenity but because, while they had roughly half the country aggreeing with their sides and issues, they lost the fight.

G-man July 13, 2010 11:48 AM


I’m not a lawyer but it looks like the defendant argued he did not know his two shotguns were in violation of a law because he did not know the exact length of the barrels when he sawed them off.

In other words, the case came down to whether someone that did not bother to figure out if they are in violation should be exempt from a law regulating the length of a barrel.

Measure twice, cut once! 😉

Andy July 13, 2010 11:54 AM

@bob “Debra Tate is a moron”

And @bob is an insensitive jerk. It may be a bad idea to have those who survive the violent or premature death of a loved one set public policy relating to those who did the dirty deed. That doesn’t make the deed less dirty or the victims and survivors less worthy of our empathy. Calling pain stupidity is just plain callous.

Pardon the ad hominum attack, but I do have some idea of what Debra Tate has gone through and it’s not easy.

anon July 13, 2010 2:26 PM

@BF Skinner

I’m ok with the full implications of my statement. If you cause death and destruction against non-military targets for political purposes as part of a larger cause you are a terrorist, no matter how noble that cause may be. As for the (American) Revolutionary and Civil wars .. it’s complicated a bit by the choice of targets … British ships controlled by the crown, and Fort Sumter were legitimate military targets. If civilian loyalists/secessionists were killed for political purposes (and I have no doubt they were) the perpetrators were terrorists.

So, based on the definition I’ve chosen to adopt (I can’t claim it as my own) Major Hassan isn’t a terrorist, because the military is always a legitimate target. The other question is whether you can be a terrorist by association. If I’m a member of Al Queda and I didn’t condone 9/11, but neither did I renounce my membership, does that make me a terrorist? I’m tempted to say yes – even though guilt by association makes me nervous.

Peter A. July 14, 2010 4:46 AM

@anon: guilt by association:

Think about it this way: does hanging out with street gang members while actually not commiting any grand thefts or murders make you a criminal? I’ll say no. Does it make you a ganster? Probably yes. But ‘criminal’ is a legal term and ‘gangster’ is not. I am not sure if ‘terrorist’ has already become a legal term…

anon July 14, 2010 7:44 AM

@ Peter A

Terrorist may not be a legal term, but “providing material support to terrorists” is, and as far as I’m concerned is an more expansive definition than the one you offered for gangster.

It becomes an issue in cases like that of Salim Hamdan. Does driving Osama bin Laden around make you a terrorist? A military commission said it does, but only barely – which I think is basically right, but then the question is, what does justice look like for bit player terrorists?

mcb July 14, 2010 4:37 PM

The tired old saw, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has always annoyed me. In theory it’s possible to fight a war of national liberation without resorting to terrorism if you conduct yourself honorably and choose your targets carefully. That said, can anyone offer an example?

The American Revolution and the War Between the States were secessions. Each involved treason, insurrection, and rebellion against the lawfully constituted governments from which the actors chose to separate themselves. At some point in the proceedings the mayhem and murder stopped being civil offenses and became warfare.

So, would the targeted killing of a particular civilian by the military for exclusively social impact during a time of war be terrorism? What about targeting civilian police? Is killing a hundred thousand nominally non-combatant civilians with a purposely set firestorm or an A-bomb defensible if their terror was merely a byproduct of acts intended to show the Axis political and military leaders the resolve of their Allied opponents?

Christophe July 15, 2010 2:46 AM

In France, the government’s rhetoric regularly compares downloaders of movies and mp3s to terrorists. So boring…

anon July 15, 2010 7:49 AM

@ MCB I’m confused, you start complaining that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” annoys you, and then you go on to demonstrate why it’s true. Or are you annoyed because it’s self-evidently obvious and you just are sick of hearing people repeat it?

As for an example, you’re right, they’re hard to find, but how about Taiwan? I’m not sure I’d classify it as a war of liberation so much as a government-in-exile become quasi independent state, but it did extricate itself from it’s parent country without (as far as I can tell) killing civilians.

mcb July 15, 2010 11:59 AM

@ anon

“I’m confused, you start complaining that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” annoys you, and then you go on to demonstrate why it’s true.”

Mostly I’m just easily annoyed.

I don’t regard the military actions that kicked off either America’s revolution or its civil war as terrorist acts. Militia mixing it up with the Redcoats, warfare. Confederate soldiers shelling a Union fort, warfare. George Washington was not a terrorist as kingsnake’s “annoying” pronouncement suggests. Neither was Robert E. Lee. These honorable men were generals leading the military efforts of their respective rebellions. Might either have been legally hanged for treason if captured by the lawfully constituted governments they were fighting against? Sure. Were they “one man’s terrorist”? Not in my book.

Very nice example about Taiwan. Thanks.

Grendelnavy July 15, 2010 11:02 PM

The DOD actually has a definition of terrorism that it would do well to bring up: the use of violence, or threat of violence, meant to inculcate fear, in order to bring about social, political, religious or ideological change. If helter skelter is an ideology, then perhaps the Manson Family could be construed as terrorists

Grendelnavy July 15, 2010 11:09 PM

Serial killers, according to FBI profiling techniques, kill based on fantasies involving power and sexual dominance, and are lone individuals. As a result I would agree, Manson Family = terrorists, given the definitions

weaselspleen July 18, 2010 4:47 PM

Grendelnavy, you’re wrong on so many levels it’s scary.

First, the FBI’s profiling techniques are NOT the definition of what a serial killer is. Claiming they are is factually incorrect.

Second, you’re assuming that ALL serial killers MUST match FBI profiles, or they are NOT serial killers. That’s ridiculous at its face.

It’s true that from known historical data, serial killers generally tend to act alone. Taking a generalized trend and trying to make it into some sort of law of nature is absurd. By your reasoning, Charles Ng and Leonard Lake were terrorists, not serial killers. That’s ridiculous.

Third, you are saying “If they don’t fit some specific definition of serial killers, then the only other possible option is they are terrorists.” This is the fallacy of the excluded middle, and automatically renders the argument invalid.

There are lots of types of murderers other than Terrorists and Serial killers. Manson was more like a spree killer than a serial killer.

The notion that any killer who causes fear must be a terrorist is stupid beyond imagining.

lefails August 10, 2010 9:05 PM

How interesting:
I just found this blog entry by searching “serial killer 2010”, infuriated by what are obviously serial child killings going on & law enforcement’s obliviousness. And Schneider, you write on cryptography. What if I found hundreds of online essays seemingly written by the same person, in some kind of code, detailing child abductions & killings much like the ones happening this year?
What if digital privacy protection laws protect a serial killer flaunting his crimes online?

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.