A veil of fear has descended upon our neighborhoods. American, Canadian, British, French and many other citizens are radicalizing and committing unthinkable acts of domestic terrorism. It can all look so random, but is it really?
First, let’s be clear. There have been more acts of terror committed in the United States by gun carrying individuals with serious mental health issues than ideologically driven supporters of Islamic fascism. And just as we saw during the rise of the Nazis in Germany, or mass genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America, irrational fear easily sways us to look for a scapegoat. Watching Donald Trump is like watching history repeat itself. Dictatorships and mass atrocities always begin with small acts of exclusion that blame entire groups of people for the actions of a few individual radicals. To follow Trump’s logic, we should never allow anyone who is racist, or white, or Christian to enter North America because it’s people like that who join the Ku Klux Klan. His is a simple-minded logic that was used by Mao, Hitler and leaders of the Rwandan genocide. The more our leaders ignite hatred the more we will ignore hate crimes as they multiply.
Where there is exclusion and fear, terrorism takes hold.
Which brings me to the problem of identifying the terrorist next door. If you want to know if the young man or woman living next to you is a radical intent on planting bombs in the name of some religious or social cause, then ask yourself, how would your neighbor answer these twelve questions? These are not an exhaustive assessment, nor will everyone who answers these questions in a way that puts them at risk of violence be a potential terrorist. The questions are simply a starting point to see whether your concern is rational. Thinking about your neighbor (or your child, student or friend), answer the following:
1. Are they picked on or bullied?
2. Are they well supported by people in their community?
3. Do they trust people from other communities?
4. Do they trust that police and other government authorities will treat them fairly?
5. Do they associate with people from different cultures and backgrounds?
6. Do they see their identity reflected positively in their community, at their school, and in the media?
7. Do they believe that people who behave badly should be excluded from the community, or shamed?
8. Do they have ways of becoming involved in their community in a positive way?
9. Do they believe their cultural identity should be a guide to how they should live (even if they themselves don’t live that way)?
10. Do they feel free to practice their religion/spirituality/culture, and are their practices tolerated by others?
11. Does their cultural identity limit their opportunities?
12. Do they believe that violence is appropriate when defending the dignity of their nation, family, community, or culture?
Though we don’t have the perfect psychological test to find a terrorist, if the answer to questions 1, 7, 9, 11, and 12 is Yes, and the answers to questions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10 is No, then there are warning signs that your neighbor (or child, student, or friend) may be at risk of radicalizing. Of course, millions of people could fit the same profile and never once do anything remotely violent. These questions are simply a short assessment to help you rationally consider the real causes of terrorism.
Don't Panic: There Are Solutions
Before you panic, notice that all these questions deal with things that we can change to make our communities better, less threatening places for our neighbors to live. We can make people feel respected. We can make them feel like they belong and that authorities are there to protect them. We can tailor our foreign policy so we don’t persecute people like them. When we do these things, we can make the world a safe place for both our neighbors and ourselves.
Of course, there are two broad profiles of terrorists. The first are those with severe forms of mental illness. These are the narcissists who want attention. They will run away to fight a foreign war because it looks glamorous. They will kill children in an elementary school to make themselves infamous. They have always lived among us. They are the neurological twins of the male batterer, the serial rapist, and the sadistic soldier who tortures his captives. We can do nothing but keep vigilant for these people and control them with good policing and restrict their access to weapons and victims (e.g., screen them out of jobs where they can fulfill their desire for violence).
These people are not the ones who frighten us. Their acts of violence seem random, and so we feel less personally vulnerable. The ones we fear more are those who have cause to be angry. They fight foreign wars as Jihadists (or loyalists) because they feel compelled to defend a principle. Behind their choice of violence is usually a deep sense of anger at having been excluded.
No wonder, then, that terrorists come in many shapes and sizes. There are terrorists from middle-class white backgrounds who burn police cars and destroy storefronts in the name of anarchy (think some extreme fringes of the Occupy Wall Street movement). There are anti-abortion Christians who kill doctors with sniper rifles. There are Aboriginal people who become warriors and have taken up arms against their colonizers. Even the Alamo, among the most sanctified act of American resistance, is a story of freedom fighters (terrorists to the legitimate government of the day) who martyred themselves by sneaking through enemy lines with the certainty of death waiting for them.
If I could recommend a solution to the problem of terrorism, it’s fairer treatment of minorities, more immigration, and less meddling in the affairs of foreign nations unless a humanitarian crisis demands our help. That’s not blind optimism. That’s good social science.