Answer the Correct Question

Last night, three men killed seven others in London using a van and then knives. Coming so soon after an explosive attack in Manchester and an earlier vehicle-vs.-pedestrians on another London bridge, people, including Islamophobic politicians, are asking, “How can we prevent such attacks?”

That has to be the wrong question. Attackers who are willing to die are nearly impossible to stop. You can’t outlaw vehicles that can be driven into crowds. Regulating larger knives and other blades might be good public relations, but smaller blades can kill, too. Explosives are so easy to create from everyday chemicals, you can’t prevent them.

Don’t stop the supply of murderous weapons; stop the demand for them. That’s the answer to “the war on drugs,” and it’s the answer to “the war on terror,” too.

The correct question may be, “Why is it so easy to motivate so many people to commit those atrocious attacks?”

I refuse to accept the premise that Islam simply has a inherent hatred against non-(Islamic)-believers. I have two reasons for rejecting that premise. First of all, it’s exactly analogous to the accusation that Christianity wants to overwhelm non-Christians by might. Secondly, if it were true, there would be a billion people or more conspiring to kill “us,” not mere thousands.

It is true that in the past, Islam has sometimes expanded by conquest, not by persuasion. The same is equally true of Christianity. If one side cites the Moors’ spread across northern Africa and into the Iberian peninsula, the other side can cite the Crusades — and later the Inquisition as well. Both religions have at time been led (or coopted by) fanatics who use religion to justify violence, and both have scripture readings that can be read as justifying conversion by almost any means. Just as Christianity no longer acts upon some of its more embarrassing verses, so, too, can many Muslims reject some of the teachings cited as proof that Islam must hate us.

It is also true that both religions have outliers who would use violence under the cover of religion even in these modern times. ISIS may be dramatic currently than the KKK or the extremists who burn the Koran or paint pictures of Mohammed explicitly to provoke outrage in the Islamic world, but ISIS no more represents the Muslims I know than the provocateurs represent me and my classmates from Catholic schools I attended growing up.


We in the West seem to have an instinctive inability to admit that our actions and philosophies might give cause to legitimate grievances. In the aftermath of almost any attack in the name of Islam against Christian or secular targets, it is heresy to ask if we in the West have done anything to earn their ire. My Google-fu isn’t strong enough to even find shreds of attempts to raise the question in late 2001, apart from a “readers’ responses” article from The Nation. I remember academics trying to ask, “Have we done anything to provoke this,” and being shouted down by, “Nothing can justify this!” I am deliberate in asking about provocation versus justification; people quickly dismissed questions about provocations by declaring that there could be no justification for such a level of hatred and violence.

This is, like so many other points in modern Western debate, a false dichotomy. Proving your opponent wrong does not prove that you are right. That a response is disproportional in magnitude does not mean that there was no provocation to begin with.

Why do people become radicalized? Why do people accept and adopt hostility and conflict while rejecting accommodation and existence? I can ask the question about violence under the banner of nominal Islam, and I can ask the question about Donald Trump’s supporters. Journalists have been writing for two years about “economic anxieties,” only to be mocked by others after displays of open racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other non-economic sins perpetrated members of the same class of people. This mocking, too, is a sign of a false dichotomy. Who says that some Trump supporters can’t be reacting to losses of jobs and industries while others are simply horrible people feeling emboldened by nationalist, xenophobic, homophobic, and other extremist forms of rhetoric?

The world has become a lot more homogenous in the past 100 or 150 years. It was more homogenous 150 years ago than it was 300 years ago, and that was more homogenous than 200 years before that. Social structures that existed in vacuums of isolation are challenged when faced with other social structures that deny assumptions present in the vacuums. Monarchies are challenged by democracies. Patriarchies are challenged by women’s rights. Slavery is challenged by the premise that slaves are people with fundamental human rights. Notions of inherent superiority (of any group or trait!) are challenged by actual experiences with the nominally inferior. And, yes, domestic industries are challenged by exports from countries with lower standards of living or fewer environmental protections.

Oligarchs of all varieties rise to power by presenting themselves as saviors of a group that doesn’t even know it’s a victim. “Men subjugate women!” “Femi-Nazis want to exterminate men!” “Straights have no tolerance of diversity!” “Freaks want to recruit your children to be like them!” “Christians want to exterminate Muslims!” “Muslims want to exterminate Christians!” “Vaccines are a plot to kill our people!” “Savages who don’t know any better will try to kill us!”

The question isn’t whether any of these statements are true. The question is, are there seeds of despair or oppression that give these lies and hyperbole soil to germinate in? Why are Muslims in Europe and America so vulnerable to radicalization? Why are poor whites so vulnerable to Trump’s brand of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and victimization?

Why are there pockets of people ready to hear and accept calls to violence and confrontation? 

That, I say, is the question we have to ask in the wave of Yet Another Act of Extremist Violence.

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