There’s a social science of terrorism. Science News magazine* devoted a special article to the research of anthropologist Scott Atran** of the University of Michigan. Atran has been on the battlefields of ISIS, asking what causes ordinary people to make extreme personal sacrifices—even suicide—while destroying other people, places, things. There’s something uncomfortably familiar in Atran’s findings, something Science News doesn’t mention.
Atran finds that the young people joining ISIS are not necessarily mental cases or the oppressed poor. Rather, the young terrorists, rich or poor, seek a social identity that gives their lives significance, meaning, and glory. They adopt values they regard as sacred and nonnegotiable, to be defended at any cost. Oh-oh, does that sound like the Tea Party?
Atran says many ISIS members believe they must destroy the world in order to save it. Does somebody else claim they must destroy the functioning of Congress in order to save the U.S.—from what? From Obamacare? From taxes? From immigrants? Or is another somebody crusading to save us from poverty, from religious politics, from secret federal spying into bedrooms and mailboxes?
The Jihadists want to eliminate nonbelievers and replace the world with their version of a divine kingdom. Do I hear American voices wanting to eliminate climate believers, to establish a blessed kingdom ruled by money, corporate governance, and absence of regulations? (Although keeping regulations that eliminate unbelievers who adhere to abortion choice, gay rights, and open federal lands.) Then there are the other American voices fomenting an alternate Eden blest by social engineering.
ISIS aside, is there a holy war here too?
What’s the difference between ISIS and the American revolution, the difference between the current Tea Party and the original Boston tea party? What’s the difference between historical politics and two current movements: the Make America Great club, and the Bernie Sanders’ revolt?
Connectivity. That’s what’s different. The ISIS followers can recruit, coordinate, and get world-wide attention. So can the other rebellions. It is now possible for any group, particularly for the disaffected who believe the world is out of control, to garner psychological support from others who also feel disaffected. Always, it is human nature to defend belief rather than to discuss fact, and the best defense is attack. The reward for joining a movement is meaning, fellowship, and even glory. That’s ISIS and that’s American politics today. The home-grown versions aren’t very violent. Yet. But many folks are ready to start shooting. A few already did.
It isn’t ISIS that will get us.
It will be the way we respond to ourselves.
* Science News July 9, 2016, pp. 18-21.
** Adjunct Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Also Director of Research, National Center of Scientific Research, Paris, a Fellow at Stanford University, and other concurrent positions.