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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.