Was Oklahoma Beheading an Act of Workplace Violence or Terrorism? Or Both?

Oct. 1, 2014

On Sept. 25, Alton Nolen was suspended from his job at an Oklahoma food-processing plant, and he later attacked two employees with a knife, beheading one of them. While anyone would agree that Nolen’s alleged actions were horrific and savage, there’s some debate as to whether they constituted an act of workplace violence or terrorism.

Authorities have indicated that Nolen’s attack appears to be a case of a disgruntled worker seeking revenge – in other words, an act of workplace violence – despite Nolen’s fascination with beheadings and his recent conversion to Islam. Nolen, 30, is facing one first-degree-murder charge and two assault charges for the attack, as reported by NBC News:

“ … Cleveland County Prosecutor Greg Mashburn said it appeared Nolen’s assault was tied more to his suspension. Mashburn said Vaughan’s human resources department suspended Nolen earlier Thursday after another co-worker, Traci Johnson, had complained that she had had an altercation with Nolen ‘about him not liking white people.’

The prosecutor said Nolen fetched a knife from home and ‘returned to get revenge.’ He walked into the plant’s administrative office in suburban Oklahoma City, Mashburn said. Nolen came across Hufford first and attacked her from behind, severing her head. He then turned his attention to Johnson, 43, who was repeatedly stabbed, but survived.”

However, some commentators and politicians, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are convinced that Nolen’s attack was a clear example of terrorism, pointing to reports that Nolen’s Facebook page and co-workers indicated that Nolen had embraced radical Islam.

“I think Americans aren’t confused about this what this is,” Perry told the Fox News show “Fox & Friends” Monday. “This is a clear case of an individual going in and doing something that doesn’t meet their definition of workplace violence, so you know, I think any rational thinking American is going to look at this and go, this is more than just normal workplace violence.”

“There’s nothing but evidence that Nolen was copying the ISIS beheadings in Syria,” CNN commentator and legal analyst Mel Robbins says in an opinion piece on CNN’s website. “So let’s drop the political correctness for once and call the Oklahoma beheading what it is – terrorism.”

Robbins, who believes it’s important “to draw a very clear distinction between ISIS extremists and the silent majority of Muslims who are just as horrified as non-Muslim Americans,” also expresses outrage that U.S. officials classified Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s November 2009 massacre at Ford Hood as an act of workplace violence.

“It doesn’t mean anything that Hasan is writing letters from death row to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, begging to become a citizen of the self-proclaimed Islamic State,” Robbins laments. “Just a guy who got angry at work.”

So, is Alton Nolen just a guy who got mad at work, or was he a terrorist mimicking the brutal tactics of Islamic extremists?

For any HR manager, plant manager or EHS professional who has witnessed an act of workplace violence, the narrative certainly fits the classic pattern. A worker – who might be struggling with mental health issues – is fired, suspended or reprimanded for antisocial behavior. The disciplinary action pushes the worker over the proverbial edge, and the worker tries to exact revenge through violence. It’s an all-too-common scenario.

Of course, those who disagree that Nolen’s attack fits that narrative point to Nolen’s sympathies to extremist groups, and the similarity of his alleged crime to the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic State militants in Syria.

So, is Alton Nolen a terrorist or a disgruntled worker seeking revenge? From my perspective – and I know even less about this case than the pundits – maybe he fits both definitions. Nolen is a disgruntled worker, for sure, and he murdered a co-worker using the same tactics as militant extremists, possibly inspired by those extremists.

Still, I'm not sure how much this debate matters to facility managers, HR directors, EHS professionals and others who have a stake in addressing workplace violence, because their critical task remains the same: doing everything possible to keep all workers safe from any harm. Often, that includes having plans and policies to prevent, respond to and recover from violence in the workplace, and for some organizations, it might include having separate plans to address acts of terrorism as well.

Either way, the tragedy in Moore, Okla., should remind employers – especially small and midsize ones – that the need for robust safety, security and sustainability programs is real, and the costs of learning the hard way can be devastating.

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