The mass shooting in Orlando, while it should probably not be called terrorism, has reignited debates about what causes terrorism, what we can do to prevent terrorism, and so on. Typically, terrorism is called by Islam, or so we are led to believe. However, I would argue that terrorism is brought about by a combination of poverty, lack of education (or mis-education), and anomie. Let’s take them one by one.
- Poverty. The causes of poverty are complex and there is no real reason to go into them here. But, the existence of poverty leads to hopelessness, despair, envy, and a desire to escape into another world, or to radically reshape this world. Of course, there are many people living in America and Europe who are (relatively) well off financially compared to people in Africa, parts of Asia, and the Middle East. Perhaps a better term would be relative poverty. If you make $100,000 per year, you are not poor. But, if you are surrounded by people who make in excess of $1,000,000 per year, you very well may consider yourself poor. The problem with poverty is that, to some extent, it is relative. We do not compare ourselves (without great mental effort) to the homeless family desperate to cross the Mediterranean when we think about our financial status. We compare ourselves to the family down the street with the new car and pool. Regardless, poverty or at least the feeling of poverty is a great burden and leads people to feel desperate, to make poor decisions, to want to ‘get back’ at those they feel are benefiting at their expense, to change the way the world works so that you are wealthy and others can be envious of you.
- Education. A lack of education or a mis-education, whereby you are either indoctrinated into a certain ideology, or you are at least susceptible to dangerous ideologies. Does this mean that nobody with a college degree could commit terrorism, or an act of violence? Of course not. I’m not trying to be elitist here. What I mean by a good education is one that teaches you to be an active participant in your learning, one that leads you to critically question your existing views and ideas, an education that forces you to think about new ideas as they are presented to you and consider them in the light of evidence and reason. College is not needed for this, and in many cases, does a poor job of providing this type of education. A lack of education can easily lead to a person being swayed from potentially dangerous thoughts into actually dangerous actions.
- Anomie. This term in not in use much anymore, but it goes back to Durkheim’s book, Suicide, published in 1897. Surely, there is a more modern explanation for terrorism! I actually think anomie works quite well. Essentially, it means, “no norms”, that is, a feeling that you do not belong to a community, that there are no norms for a community to live by. Imagine if there was no general prohibition against murder? Even people who murder generally admit it’s wrong (typically they try to justify it, “he had it coming” sort of logic). What if we had no social norms for how to act? Can you imagine trying to go to work everyday and never knowing what to expect from your co-workers? Essentially, I see anomie as leading a worldview where you view everyone as an “other”, nobody understands you, you don’t fit in. We know that the people who commit these mass shootings are loners, people who do not have a strong social network, people who feel isolated, out of touch. When you feel like this, it is very easy to latch onto any group that seems willing to accept you and support you, even if they are a violent, extremist group.
Ultimately, I am trying to locate the source of terrorism not in a specific religion or ideology, but in a complex web of social forces that affect all of us. Many people would like to say, “If we only got rid of Muslims, then we would have no more terrorism!” This is facile thinking of the worst kind. Any one of us could be a terrorist, if the right circumstances are present, and if we feel trapped and have no other option. Terrorism is not limited to Muslims, nor is it even limited to religious people. Atheists are quite capable of committing violent, terrorist acts, if given the right provocation and set of circumstances that they are operating under. Instead of blaming a group of people and looking for ways to use our military to destroy an entire group, we should remove the underlying causes that allow these groups to arise.