Monday, April 10, 2017

Putting America-based Jihad in perspective

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, terrorism

For those of us who were adults in 2001, the 9/11 attack that destroyed the World Trade Center towers was a before-and-after moment. For those of us a generation or two older, it is remembered as keenly as the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. A certain few events, lesser in scope, perhaps, but serious enough, can loom as large for many people who were close enough to be affected.

In my case, the Oklahoma City bombing just 22 years ago affected me in two ways. I was in Stillwater, 70 road miles but 52 straight-line miles away. I was outside on a fine Spring day and I heard it and felt it. Initially, I thought it was a somewhat large explosion within Stillwater, such as a natural gas explosion demolishing a house. Then I heard radio reports of what it really was, although they were garbled at first. I had to be in OKC the next day, so I drove by, as close as I could get. Seeing how the front of that enormous building had simply been removed was a gut-hit experience.

Such an event happening today would immediately bring Islamic terrorists to mind. But Timothy McVeigh was no Muslim. He did not claim any religious motive at all in the things he wrote about the attack. He professed that he sought vengeance for Federal hypocrisy.

America has a long history of terrorism upon its territory; see this Wikipedia article, for example. Probably the most famous terrorism campaign prior to 2001 was the long history of the KKK, primarily active from 1865-1877 (more than 3,000 victims), but with scattered bombings, lynchings, riots and smaller massacres reaching into the 1970's.

Today Americans are worried about terrorism at home and abroad, wondering whether this country is in danger of "Islamofascist takeover" for example. No doubt, the past 16+ years have taken their toll on the American psyche, but fortunately, most of the worrisome incidents have happened in other countries. Yet people worry, "Is it time to arm myself? To get shooting lessons for the whole family?" and "What do we do if someone comes for US?"

Into this ferment author Peter Bergen offers his new book United Stated of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists. Although Mr. Bergen deals at some length with events throughout the Middle East and around the world, his focus is on American citizens and legal residents. He studied the case histories of more than 300 such people. Some of them, such as the Tsarnaev brothers, committed terrorism within the USA. Some managed to "join jihad" by going to Somalia, Yemen, Syria and other places where they could learn to be a muhajid (colloquially, a Muslim guerrilla fighter) and fight (and usually die) alongside member of ISIS or other groups. A goodly number of them were caught before they could do anything, and quite a number started attacks that failed, such as the "underwear bomber".

America's law enforcement and military leaders have been trying to learn, mostly the hard way, what makes a terrorist's mind tick. You can look at any sort of situational arc, and find the entire range of responses to it. For example, long before 9/11 there was the phenomenon of someone "going postal", named for the killing of 14 in a post office in Edmond, OK by Patrick Sherrill. While this was a revenge killing rather than a specifically terrorist action, it is otherwise similar. He had a grievance of long standing and, in the parlance of the day, "snapped" and went on a rampage.

As we often hear, many people have chronic grievances, but most tend to blow off steam by singing along with "Take this Job and Shove it" or frequenting "happy hour" or taking on a vigorous sport such as Rugby. An example in the book struck me very memorably, for it exemplifies the spectrum of response. It is used to illustrate the difference between "affective" violence and "predatory" violence. Rather than quote, I'll paraphrase:
You are in a bar at happy hour and get just tipsy enough to spill a drink on the guy next to you. Nine times out of ten, he'll say, "Hey, buy me a drink and we can forget about it." One time out of ten he'll take a swing, or offer to "settle it outside", and the violence that ensues is "affective". That is, he gets mad, you get mad, and the two of you have it out. But in a very few cases, a guy who says, "...we can forget about it" will surreptitiously keep an eye on you, follow you home, drive around the block a time of two, get into your house by a back door or window, and slit your throat. That is "predatory" violence. It is the source of the proverb, "Beware the wrath of a patient man."
Going postal is similar. The kind of psychopathic mind that "snaps" in that way doesn't really "snap." It calculates and when the cost/benefit ratio is favorable, watch out! True mayhem takes planning.

As it happens, getting into the mind of someone who shows signs of radicalization (by Islam or any other ideology, including conspiracy theories) has not proven fruitful. Gathering behavioral signals works better. All too many of the 300 talked to a few or even several friends in ways the friends thought worrisome, for example. A method now known as MOSAIC does a fair job of gleaning the signal from the noise. It was developed by Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, which I read a few years before I began blogging.

I won't take up space by listing the steps and so forth. Take a look, for example at the online Mosaic Threat Assessment method that de Becker maintains. It uses indicators that are not specific to any religion or ideology, but are behavioral, and while it can indeed yield a better sense of someone's level of potential for jihad, it can also help you determine if your chronically angry spouse or co-worker is a threat to you. Note: the site contains instructions to help you ensure that "someone" won't find out you are checking out a threat. If such a person is a genuine threat, that's helpful!

Circling back to the core of the book's message: While the threat of jihad in America is real, it is over-hyped. International terrorist organizations such as ISIS know how to keep the 24-hour news business humming, and take full advantage of the premise, "There is no such thing as bad attention". But how much threat is there, really? Not every plot is foiled. Some come "out of the blue", or so it seems. We would have to educate all 200 million adult Americans in MOSAIC-style assessment to catch nearly every case. So some risks always remain. How much? Left to ourselves we are poor judges of risk. I like this example:
On the beach one day, someone yelled "Shark!" Most folks ran up the beach and jumped in their car. About half of them lit up a smoke. Many started the engine and drove off.
What is the real risk here?

  • Is there really a shark? Maybe...perhaps probably.
  • A dangerous shark? Maybe...I've bumped into "sand sharks" four or five times. Most shark species don't bite anything bigger than they are.
  • A few people per year genuinely die of shark bite.
  • In America, almost 40,000 die yearly in auto accidents. Driving ten miles puts you at about the same risk of dying as the chance you'll die of shark bite in your lifetime.
  • In America, about 400,000 die yearly because they smoke/smoked. I don't know how to figure out how many ciggies equal the risk of dying of shark bite. Probably less than a pack!
  • If the person screams "Shark!" with real, curdling terror in their voice, the chances you'll die by being crushed in the rushing crowd are much greater than the chance that a deaf guy over there who stayed in the water will actually get bitten.

Final thought. The number of people who died in America in massacres and similar events that were not connected to jihad is greater than the number who died of events such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Fort Hood shootings. And if we contemplate single events: if you happen to be murdered, by far the most likely culprit is a relative of yours, someone who is not a Muslim or any other kind of religious fanatic.

Terrorism in America began while the colonies were a-borning. Twenty or fifty years into the future, will Islamic terror still be at the forefront? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not, I think. But acts of terror will go on. Until we find a way to "breed out" the seeds of terror, it will remain some people's chosen revenge.

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