Living in an age of terror: Brussels

March 22, 2015

On September 10, 2001, the day before the 9/11 attacks, I was on a flight from Portland to Birmingham, Alabama. It was one of the last flights before air travel was changed forever. Gone are the days when you could run from the ticket counter to your flight and have your loved ones waiting for you at the concourse gate at the other end. I was flying back across the country in August, 2006 when a plot was uncovered to detonate liquid peroxide bombs on several transatlantic flights and on our Dallas layover we were told to surrender all bottles of liquid and cups of coffee. By then it had become the new normal.


The attacks in Paris (where I have spent much time), San Bernardino (where I have friends) and now Brussels (in a metro station and airport I have waited in) cause us to wonder where all this will end. We respond emotionally because of personal connections with the places and/or victims, but we also become somewhat blasé. Another day, another reminder that there is some strange quasi-war going on that might affect us today. Some call for more bombs from our side. Others remind us that bombs just bring more bombs from their side. Some call for prayer. Others remind us that prayer might be what started this whole thing.


I just think about the world my daughter will grow up in. I’m reminded of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant and absurd film from 1985, Brazil. In the film terrorism has just become the background noise of modern society, met with a shrug. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh loved the movie but I fear it’s becoming more prophetic than Gilliam could have envisioned.

Sometimes the media refers to me as a “terrorism expert.” That’s not completely correct. I’m more than comfortable with being tagged as a “domestic terrorism expert,” but there is a an evolution in the world of terror. I am certainly not an expert in international terrorism. I probably know as much as anybody who studies extremism and watches a lot of cable news. I double-majored in Sociology and International Studies at Emory, but that was the 1980s and my focus was on Cold War issues and Latin America. I should have been studying the Middle East.

The new evolution is the domestic-international hybrid personified by the American citizen (born in Chicago) who, inspired by his Pakistani wife and internet websites, killed 14 people in his workplace in San Bernadino last December. The world of terrorism evolves faster than experts, intelligence agents, and law enforcement can keep up. And that’s chilling. It’s an incredibly complex phenomenon that no campaign quip can solve. Senator Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” wiping out countless civilians in the process. Game show host Donald Trump wants to torture suspects, kill the children of suspected terrorist and (somehow) prevent any Muslim from entering the country. Do any of these people understand the concept of blowback? Maybe they should use Google to find out what the impact of the 2003 abuses at Abu Ghraib had on the terrorism problem.

It’s a complex problem that the “carpet bomb them into oblivion” knuckle-draggers don’t want to understand, dooming us to more of the same until the scenes from Brazil become our reality. However, there are two general strategies that people gravitate to.

The first is “Our bombs are bigger than your bombs,” approach, that there is a moral obligation to use our massive arsenal to wear them down to submission. Of course, one could argue that while that approach, after over a decade of casualties on both sides, finally dispatched Al Qaeda to a few dank caves, it created the environment for the rise of ISIS, Al Qaeda’s psychotic little brother. Any criminologist can tell you that deterrence only works on rational actors. If you are hyped up on religious extremism (this includes more than a few right-wing Christians), you are not making rational choices unless you think your great reward is in heaven.


The other approach is understanding why these people “hate us” and interrupting that process. There is plenty of good scholarship here and it has a lot do with globalization, economics, and the power of religion to manipulate people who have a very simplistic (and often uneducated) worldview. Just like street gangs that have a place for their recruits who are “psycho,” jihadists have a position for young men who are psychologically vulnerable. Often it’s strapped to an explosive belt with a promise of heavenly reward and security for their family. While situations and contexts vary, after so many years of this, there are some very useful profiles. Each one offers a strategy that doesn’t involve the use of drones. Right now we should be talking to every single former jihadist and they should be talking to anyone who might be a target for recruitment.

Understanding terrorists as people instead of as evil monsters is understandably difficult. “Killing them all,” is much more emotionally satisfying than the daunting task of understanding them all so you can prevent future attacks. But “kill them all,” includes collateral damage, also known as innocent men, women, and, especially, children. I think if my daughter was killed in someone else’s war, I might be ready to inflict that suffering on some other father. And it goes on and on. Someone must be profiting from this cycle of insanity.

The questions that are coming out of Brussels today ask why do Muslims in Belgium (and Europe) feel so isolated? As a “domestic terrorism expert,” I know that these questions are also asked about right-wing extremists and violent gang members. That question points to a solution to this that is better than any carpet bombing or drone strike. It also explains why the American Muslim community is a model of how things should be in Europe.


The first Olympics I watched were the 1972 Munich games. I watched from home in Stone Mountain, the modern birthplace of America’s first defined terrorist group, the KKK. I wanted to watch Mark Spitz swim but ended up watching 11 Israeli athletes kidnapped and killed by the Black September terrorist group. I have never known a world without terror. I fear my child will not either as the war of all against all continues. But there is reason for hope.

7 thoughts on “Living in an age of terror: Brussels

  1. Collateral damage is a big problem. Having been in Iraq, I know and understand that happens. It is something that is a burden to me. Do I wish that upon anybody? Of course not. At the time, it didn’t bother me. While deployed to Iraq, the feeling of dehumanization kicks into overdrive. You not only lose that connection for yourself internally, but you feel disconnected from everyone else. That’s where the fight or flight mode kicks in. I can’t tell you how many times I felt or said, “Kill or be killed. It’s either them or me/my brothers. It’s not going to be us, so it’s going to be them.” Years after returning home from Iraq and even after I was discharged from the Army, I continued to feel that way. It wasn’t until I became a Christian to learn to not only forgive myself for what I’ve done, but also my attackers as well.

    At the time of the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse, we had just invaded Iraq (March 2003). Having been to the prison on several occasions dropping detainees off, I felt that they deserved everything they had coming. Was it right at the time? No it doesn’t. Does that make me any less of human today? No it doesn’t. I look back now and realize that it was uncalled for, shouldn’t have happened, and the soldiers involved deserved to be punished.

    I know you don’t share the same beliefs as I do, but many Christians (including myself) we do pray not only for the people of the world, but for less destruction from terrorist organizations or individuals. I think an important thing to note is it doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or any other religion, it does not say anywhere that it is ok for you to kill people in the name of God. I know the Bible says many different times that we are not to kill. I know the Koran is the same way. Problem behind people saying they are doing this in the name of God are extremists/radicals and feel they are in the right. As we see this happening internationally, it also is happening domestically. We have radicalized organizations like the KKK, Aryan Brotherhood, skin heads, and so many more racial organizations. They say that the white man is superior over everyone else and yet they call themselves Christians. If they truly call themselves Christians, then they would know that in Matthew 22:34-40, it says, 34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Even in Al Quran surah 45. It talks about love your enemy.

    We live in a society where the dialect has been twisted, turned, and seen in a way where we want to see it rather than how the text is really talking about it. I don’t want you thinking that I’m trying to preach to you because I’m not. The point I’m making is that when we have all these organizations saying white power, black power, Muslims are the better, so on and so forth, claim to be Christian, Muslim, or another religious belief and continue to kill in the name of God, they are only defying what God says.


  2. My then first wife and I were on a flight from Amsterdam to Seattle (with a layover in Detroit) on September 7th. I wonder what would it have been like had we come back four days later. We could have ended up going through NY instead. Even if we weren’t on a hijacked flight it would have been scary as hell.

    The next trip we took was in Feb 2002 to Reno. I remember in both airports security having automatic weapons.

    As for the next generation, I honestly think they are going to be screwed given either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president.


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