The St. Cloud Stabbing in Minnesota, Seaside Park bombing in New Jersey, and New York City explosion are assuredly examples of terrorism. As the perpetrators of these crimes are tied to the Muslim world, they are examples of Islamic terrorism inside the United States. Not surprisingly, politicians and pundits have seized upon these election-year events to promote their preferred candidates and disqualify their opponents, instead of leading on the issue of terrorism. How Americans are responding to these attacks is, however, somewhat surprising. Although the magnitude of terrorism inside the US is nowhere near that seen in the Middle East, Americans are starting to see minor acts of terrorism as a just another kind of routine violent crime.
Recognizing terrorism takes place in the American homeland is important, because it reminds the American People that we face the same threats as the victims of terrorism in Paris as well as victims of violence in the Middle East. Recognizing that terrorism is another form of violent crime just like domestic abuse and police brutality reminds all people that the outcome of violence and murder is the same no matter the motivation, i.e. the loss of life. That said, understanding why perpetrators of violent crimes ultimately choose to engage in their attacks of violence can help people cope with the consequences and help authorities decrypt the patterns they need to understand and prevent future violent crimes.
Politicians and pundits like to squabble over whether these mass murders are terrorist attacks, but the simple truth is that the motivation only matters when trying to prevent future acts of violence. Just as blaming mental health and guns will not eliminate violent crime, calling attention to the religious beliefs, moral objections, and political stances of a murderer cannot eradicate acts of violence. Even if someone is classified as a terrorist, the reality is that a terrorist cause can be nothing more than an avenue for a recruit to express his, or her, violent feelings and/or tenancies. After all, the perpetrators of terrorism and other violent crimes are motivated by many factors.
All choices have economic, emotional, and social consequences to the decision-maker and others. Even the act of making a choice has costs as the decision-making process requires time and effort that takes away from other endeavors. Consequently, a preoccupation with emotional or social issues can very much limit the ability of a person to focus on essential intellectual endeavors. When trying to understand individuals in crisis, such as those on the verge of committing a violent act, it is important to understand their state of mind by looking at what costs these individuals do not consider. It also important to understand what costs these individuals are willing to endure versus what others typically will not.
For example, someone who is in a critical stage of suicide, i.e. thoughts of suicide have been crystallized into worsening suicidal impulses after decades of suffering, struggles to make the choice to live on a daily basis. The decision to live for a suicidal person is based on whether or not the individual can live with the short-term consequences of a given choice or the day's events. As such, decision-making becomes ever more dependent upon emotion, even when inappropriate, while the suicidal person becomes unable to make long-term choices to ensure a brighter future.
Unless a critically suicidal person can find a significant enough purpose to live for, such as having a child, an equivalent love of science, or a meaningful job, he cannot progress beyond this degenerative state. Because of the short-term nature of these individuals' reactions to life events and ongoing stressors, suicidal individuals may not be able to address their broader and long-term interests, even when they thoroughly understand those needs. Suicidal victims eventually regress to a state where they no longer consider social costs, e.g. the impact of their death on others, and economic costs, e.g. personal interests like finances, as their focus is on the emotional costs associated with continuing to live.
Similarly, an individual considering a first act of violence narrows his, or her, decision-making capacity to include only a few factors. Instead of recognizing the pain and suffering an act of violence will do to potential victims, or the legal fallout, a would-be attacker might consider the cost of disappointing peers. For Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the cost of disappointing his brother, i.e. a social/emotional cost, was likely more "expensive" than the cost of hurting others, being punished criminally, and distressing other family members, if these factors were even considered.
For those who have been radicalized by terrorists or their own circumstances, the choice to commit a violent act may depend upon a feeling that the rules of society do not address a critical set of their interests. These individuals feel neglected by our broader society, so the social cost of not acting violently for the approval of a small group of peers is far more costly than the cost of going to prison or being killed. In other words, violent and self-destructive people do not reason the way healthy, functional people reason. As such, they only way to discourage their acts of violence is to understand their calculations, so we can address their distorted rationales.
What makes acts like suicide or violent crimes so mystifying to healthy, well-assimilated individuals is the way in which Westerners have been taught to undermine life, which stems from the ancient Western philosophies that influence modern day thinking. Much of the world has been indoctrinated by Socrates' assertion that motivation is rooted in the fear of death. Shifted to modern, more accurate terms, motivation is based on an avoidance of discomfort. Because Westerns, and Westernized individuals, have learned to fear death, fear of death prevents people from understanding those who ignore death as a consequence.
In ancient Japanese tradition, as an example detached from Western thinking, suicide was seen as an acceptable means of avoiding the discomfort of shame. In a similar fashion, emotionally damaged people use suicide as a means of avoiding emotional pain. In turn, violent criminals use violence to avoid the discomfort associated with having their interests neglected. In other words, they feel a need to "fight back" against what they perceive to be an attack on them by society. Feeling alienated and marginalized, Islamic terrorists identify with Islam to avoid the discomfort of their low-social standing then attack non-conforming threats to reinforce their perceived sense of Islamic empowerment.
Furthermore, when an individual's decision-making processes have been distorted by an emotional or social deficit, making an economic argument will have little effect on their actions. For example, society offers prison time for a violent offense, which is an economic incentive not to commit a crime. Most people make the choice not to cause harm due to the consequences; however, most violent offenders will not, because they are motivated by such factors. FBI and other interrogators have a successful track record with interrogating methods based in efforts to forge relationships with detainees. These methods can be successful, because interrogators recognize and attempt to exploit the emotional and social deficits of their subjects.
Like a suicidal individual, a person contemplating a violent crime, including an act of terrorism, may offer a few subtle hints in order to find an "out," as these people may want to maintain their options, or legitimatize their actions as the only path. For potential terrorists and other outcasts, violent groups, characters, and ideals can fulfill the needs that our broader society has neglected. Consequently, an emotional or social deficit is often the motivation behind acts of terrorism and other violent offenses. Moreover, terrorism is largely just another kind of violent crime that happens to be motivated by ideological issues.
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