The gruesome beheading in Oklahoma last week was, by any reasonable measure, horrifying. Police in Moore said that after Alton Nolen, an employee at a food processing plant, was fired on Thursday, he went to another part of the facility and attacked another employee with a knife. He killed Colleen Hufford and “severed” her head, according to a statement from Sgt. Jeremy Lewis. Nolen, who turned 30 last month, then attacked another co-worker named Traci Johnson.
Mark Vaughn, the chief operating officer of Vaughan Foods and a reserve deputy with Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office since 2010, confronted Nolen and shot him. Johnson and Nolen were both taken to the hospital in stable condition. Nolen has not been charged yet, though it is expected that he will be charged with murder. His mother and sister have apologized for the murders.
Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City with about 58,000 residents, had previously been in the news after an incredibly destructive tornado last year killed two dozen people and demolished more than 1,000 homes in the city. Hufford, 54, had lost her home in the tornado, the Oklahoman reported on Friday. (In a rather strange coincidence, on Friday a nursing home employee in Oklahoma City was arrested for threatening to cut a co-worker’s head off.)
The episode in Moore drew more attention than other incidents of workplace violence because of the nature of this particular attack. Two American journalists — Steven J. Sotloff and James Foley — have been beheaded by Islamic State militants in Syria recently, while Algerian militants beheaded a French hostage named Herve Gourdel. These episodes, particularly the deaths of the journalists, drew an incredible amount of attention and were described as “acts of barbarism” by President Obama during his speech about launching a campaign to combat Islamic State.
Authorities have not called the Oklahoma beheading terrorism, instead saying that it appears to be a case of workplace violence. Some commentators and politicians have disagreed with this assessment. Television host Joe Scarborough said this was due to “political correctness.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who is considering another presidential campaign in 2016, told Fox News that this appears to be “an act of violence that is associated with terrorism.”
“I think Americans are confused about what this is, and if this is a clear case of an individual going in and doing something that doesn’t meet their definition of workplace violence,” Perry said, according to the Hill. “I think any rational-thinking American is going to look and this and go this is more than just normal workplace violence.”
Putting aside the macabre reality of a world in which “normal workplace violence” and “what should count under the heading of school shootings” are things we can categorize and debate, there is the reality of what police and authorities say. The Moore police said that Nolen had tried to convert several co-workers to Islam. Two federal law enforcement officials told The Washington Post that Nolen was a recent convert to Islam with a “provocative” Facebook page that included a photo of Osama bin Laden.
Yet these officials also said that the FBI had found no link to terrorism. They also said there was no indication that Nolen was copying the beheadings of journalists in Syria carried out by the Islamic State. Instead, the officials said, they are treating this as an incident of workplace violence.
The debate regarding how we define such situations recurs from time to time. After Elliot Rodger opened fire in Santa Barbara earlier this year, Sally Kohn wrote that a man specifically seeking to punish women — using violence to promote that ideology — is a terrorist. When two police officers were targeted and gunned down in Las Vegas, Post Nation asked about why this particular shooting wasn’t being identified as a terrorist attack.
The FBI, it should be noted, defines terrorism as something that seems meant to intimidate a civilian population or affect the actions of a government. Of course, the FBI also says that “there is no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism.” Another way some experts define terrorism is anything that targets innocent civilians. Yet the reaction to this particular incident in Oklahoma reminds me of something J.M. Berger, a terrorism analyst, said after the Las Vegas shootings.
“One of the problems with an inconsistent definition of terrorism is basically, if a Muslim does it it’s terrorism and if a white guy does it, it’s not,” Berger said in an interview in June. “If the guy in Santa Barbara said Jews instead of women and said ‘Allahu Akbar’ in his video, it would be called terrorism.”
This inconsistent definition also clearly comes into play when we have an incident involving someone beheading someone else, particularly coming so close on the heels of the Islamic State’s actions. Yet it also speaks to the fact that we have periodic spasms of violence that tend to defy easy characterization (or they fit into one such category, only for it to irritate the outside observers who pontificate on television shows about how it must be something else entirely). These are abstract and academic arguments, ones that serve little except the beliefs and motives of the people making them, divorced from the realities of an unknowable world we are forever trying to fit into preconceived categories and characterizations.
Meanwhile, the abstract is more concrete in Moore. Workers began returning to Vaughan Foods on Monday. Crisis counselors are on hand to check on the well-being of every employee, the company said, while each shift is beginning with a group gathering. The idea, they say, is to allow employees to draw strength from one another.
“The loss of our Vaughan Foods family member remains very much in our hearts and minds,” the company said in a statement. “We are encouraged by the strength and resilience we see in our team.”
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.