Why don't we see older extremists like the one in the Westminster attack?

Last month in London, people were quite surprised to learn that the attacker, Khalid Masood, was 52 years old. This is in contrast to nearly every extremist attacker we’ve heard in the past 10 years who would have been 28 and below.

It brings an interesting point though, why don’t we see this more often? Not in the arena of terrorism but in other mass shootings or murder suicides similarly dominated by younger attackers.

The mainstream view is that older people (particularly men) have greater maturity, less emotional pikes, no influence from peers in regards to masculinity, and greater financial stability.

But could the simple reason be natural selection? People who hate their race and/religion because of perceived oppression, have strict/dysfunctional families, are unable to socialize due to ostracization, envious of those they know have ‘easier lives’, and are unable to become motivated to pass in High School aren’t really going to be sticking around until their 30s or 40s. They’ll either commit suicide, die in murder suicide (mass shootings/terrorism), end up in jail, or end up in a psychiatric institute.

It should be said that if you pass 30 with ‘extremist beliefs’ they aren’t really extreme that would cause you to act out. If they were, you would have developed them during your teen years and its highly unlikely that you would be in mainstream society.

What do you think?

Older people have better functioning bullshit detectors and are therefore less amenable to the kind of indoctrination that results in extremism. The exceptions probably got their indoctrination when younger and just haven’t acted on it till now.

He was just a small town bully who grew old and didn’t know what to do anymore.

Thought he’d have one more go at being notorious so he watched a few vids to get into the thing. If he had access to guns he would have done it differently. He happened to see this on the news. Just a stupid wanker.

Violent crime is a young man’s game, demographically speaking.

Terrorist leaders tend to be middle aged. ObL died at 54, Baghdadi is 45, and Shekau is in his 40s.

Your theory makes sense to me, femmejean–surely it’s at least one component of the ‘explanation’ for the tendency of violence-committing extremists to usually be younger than middle age.

I dislike the idea of “psychologizing” political tendencies (I don’t see any reason to believe that people who commit political violence whether Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Communist, or right wing, are necessarily socially awkward / dysfunctional / envious). But I do think you have a good point about the selection effect. Most people who know they want to commit an act of political violence probably do so long before they turn 52, and most of the time they end up dead, in prison, etc…

Adrian Russell Ajaowas an identity seeking convert criminal at a late age.

Violent crime peaks pretty universally in the late teens. This is well established among criminologists. It’s call the age-crime curve.


So until about age 25 people have less developed planning capability and less impulse control. Throw in people that might have gotten involved with extremist movements young and have not gotten out for a couple years after 25 and we describe a lot of the people that actually conduct the attacks.

Of course there is also the fact that those who stay in the movement as they get older have the experience to move up to leadership roles like recruiting, financing, and planning the attacks others carry out. We tend to have the most visibility on the entry level people “working the register.”

Something else to consider in this: how many of both the officially declared terrorist acts are really that? And in turn, how many serial killers and other such criminals who do horrible things over a long period of time, should actually be recognized as terrorists?

One common human behavior we see from small children on up, is the pattern of “acting out first, and then coming up with the excuse why later” routine.

They’re also less motivated to make the world a better place, less idealistic. They also have bills to pay and children to raise. They got lazy and complacent, possibly cynical wrt world events and politics. They are more familiar with death, and don’t find it terribly appealing.

So, basically for the same reasons 50 yo aren’t on the front lines of leftists street protests.

This. I mean, when I was 19, I was a LOT more likely to get in a fight, join the military, protest something, and generally be more motivated for causes, etc…

Now that I’m 44, I find that while things still bug me, stuff like my job, kids, and maintaining a marriage take a lot of time and energy that would have otherwise gone into more firebrand type stuff as a youth.

I can’t imagine that this isn’t the same across all demographics, with the possible exception of the people who were firebrands and never gave it up/never had the job & family.

Really? I would guess that the number of potentially violent people out there is far higher than the number of people who actually die or are taken permanently off the streets. Even in the US, the latter is a very small proportion of the population.

The typical Jihadist is not someone who started out trying to blow up his kindergarten and went on in that vein. They usually are either law-abiding, or have only committed petty crimes prior to being “radicalized”.

And the sad thing is, in a way I can understand it. Take Joe Ordinary, make him truly believe he could be a servant of god, and a hero in general, if he just sacrifices himself (i.e. doesn’t require any hard work), and I can see why that appeals to some proportion of people.
Terror attacks with trucks, say, are a little harder to explain in this way; they aren’t just “press a button and win”; you actually need a decent portion of sadism / psychopathy to carry that kind of thing out. But there are enough (potential) sadists out there.

TL;DR: Terrorists are generally young because the young are more impulsive. Not because potential terrorists die young.

The guy who shot up the Holocaust Museum in DC was in his eighties.

I still remember a scene in The Big Fix years ago. Richard Dreyfuss is a 60s student activist turned P.I. asked to investigate a smear campaign involving a doctored photo. In it, the candidate is shown being close buds with a Big Time Radical who disappeared and was tried in abstentia for inciting a riot. He tracks the guy down and it turns out he’s living in Los Angeles suburbia with a wife and kids, working as an advertising copywriter. Grilling burgers in the back yard he laments, “I went from this (clenched fist) to this (holding up a spatula). I feel like I had a sex-change operation.”

To me it seems miraculous that more old people with nothing to lose and terminally ill people don’t decide they want to go out with a bang. It could be that most everyone really sees moral wrongness in killing for any reason. It could also be that most everyone lacks the courage to follow through on their convictions.

I doubt there’s much of a difference in courage between the young and old.
I would speculate that differences in impulsiveness and aggression are more significant.

I think it’s just that the vast majority of people (even ‘angsty’ teenagers/young adults) are prosocial in regards to not deviating into antisocial mentalities that translate into ideology and then action.

A funny “doublethink” in society I always see in in mass shooters. Elliot Rodger, the rich narcissist who was branded as a ‘spoiled brat’ by many is actually very rare for ‘spoiled brats’ let alone teens. Most teenagers I talk to from the posh kids to the messers/jock types are completely against grievous violence against even disregarding the criminal penalties and even against abusive parents/people.

It does seem to shatter this belief that teens are these antisocial group of individuals (a word which people misuse all the time.) For whatever reason, most people just don’t deviate into that homicidal/suicidal mentality in their youth and those who do as young people, leave mainstream society therefore leaving virtually no ‘older’ ticking time-bomb sociopaths.

Bad backs.

Not really; if it was true, con men (including certain types of advertising) wouldn’t preferally attack the elderly. But they are less likely to get violent and when they get violent, less likely to be any good at it.

That old man I’ve seen around the neighborhood shouting “shoot him in the head! Just shoot him in the head!” because someone hasn’t treated him with appropriate respect (in his head; note that I’m not sure what would he consider proper respect) isn’t what I’d call mild, but people are likely to attribute that kind of yelling, or loud racism, or any kind of loud extremism, from old people, to senility, and to start taking measures to “get Grandpa a nice room in the old folks’ home”.