The mass shooting in Orlando last week reignited an international discussion on domestic terrorism — and more specifically, of how Westerners become radicalized enough to translate extremist ideology into violent action.
Pundits are quick to speculate, and it’s easy to see why: If we’re able to pinpoint why domestic terrorists become a threat, then perhaps in the future we’ll be able to prevent similar attacks.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has long argued for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., recently claiming that an unchecked flow of Muslim immigrants could result in extremists “taking over” the minds of our children. Meanwhile, President Obama dismissed Trump’s comments as a “political distraction” that lacks a strategy to prevent violence.
In the midst of tragedy, we all tend to seek out a reason for what seems to be senseless violence — and it always produces the same questions. What were the perpetrators trying to achieve? What were they motivated by — their economic situation? Political oppression? Perverted religious doctrine? Psychological disorders?
One common theory focuses on socioeconomics. After the attacks in Paris and Belgium, some argued that violent radicalization is the result of the economic blight of minority communities. In France, for example, the poor “banlieue” neighborhoods are home to some of the largest and most isolated Muslim populations in Europe — and also high unemployment and a lack of opportunities.
These neighborhoods have seen regular violence over the decades. French journalists have claimed the violence has less to do with Islam and more to do with poverty and a lack of “justice sociale.” This view seems to echo the logic of the prominent French economist Thomas Piketty, who recently theorized that economic inequality was fueling the rise of the Islamic State throughout the Middle East.
This narrative has its critics. If we emphasize economics too much, they argue, we run the risk of understating the political factors that have resulted in the social marginalization of these communities. Under this view, policies enforcing the secularization of public spaces have contributed most to bitterness seeded in minority religions. France, Belgium and Turkey, for example, all have a version of the “separation of church and state” doctrine in their constitutions — called “laïcité.” It’s significantly different from the concept of religious freedom in the United States and forbids people in public spaces to be distinguishable by religion. That means no religious headwear or insignia are allowed in schools or government buildings — and it has led to a lot of political strife amid the growth of Islam in European nations.
Indeed, throughout history, many violent factions of society were driven more forcefully by political causes rather than economic. In Ireland and in Spain, armed groups such as the Irish Republican Army or separatist groups in the Spanish Basque Country were seeking political independence. And in the United States, research on radical white supremacists groups has found that racial violence was not isolated to areas with higher poverty.
Others are convinced that radicalization can’t always be explained through political or economic factors. They suggest that radicalization happens at an individual level, stressing psychological pitfalls and mental disorders in perpetrators of attacks.
This narrative gets at the so-called “lone wolf phenomenon”: when individuals who are inspired by terrorist groups like the Islamic State take action on their own. In many of these cases, the “lone wolves” may use rhetoric and tactics from terrorist groups that they see online, but they often only have a cursory understanding of the cause or religion they claim to represent. This seems to be the case for the Orlando shooting, which is why Hillary Clinton made stopping lone-wolf attackers a key segment in her response to last week’s massacre.
Of course, all of these theories can overlap. Motivations to take violent action will vary from case to case, and it’s not unreasonable to think all theories might build upon one another to provide a full picture of how radicalization happens. Given those parameters, how best should we characterize the factors that lead people to become violent? What can we learn from these theories to stem radicalization or, at least, to better monitor those who might become threats?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: