So, American Mass Shooters and Islamic Terrorists Do Have Something in Common
'It’s the same psychological phenomenon, different culture war.'
When US president Donald Trump announced his so-called “Muslim ban” on Jan. 27, he framed it as a move to keep the country safe from terrorists. But a look at the data on terrorist attacks in the US exposes the fallacy of this logic. An immigration ban will not keep the terrorists out. The terrorists are already here.
According to a publicly available dataset from the New America Foundation, in the years since 9/11, jihadists born in the US have killed 69 victims. Right-wing extremists born in the US have murdered 50 victims. Foreign-born jihadists are the least lethal of these groups, with a total of 25 victims.
These numbers offer evidence that an immigration ban will not stop the murder of Americans. But they also point to a larger flaw in the way we talk about domestic terrorism in the US. We treat right-wing extremists and radical Islamic killers as if they are two separate issues. But in fact, research suggests that the same underlying factors cause homegrown Americans to break bad—whether they join a radical Islamic terrorism group or the Ku Klux Klan.
According to research conducted by my fellow cultural psychologists Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele Gelfand, Muslims in the US radicalize when they believe their lives do not matter—a belief that arises from the feeling that they don’t really belong anywhere. Discrimination, racist rhetoric, and xenophobic policies only exacerbate these feelings of “cultural homelessness.” Radical Islamic groups exploit these emotions by targeting young people who feel alone and adrift, and then restore their sense of belonging and meaning. Thus radical Islamic terrorism is not primarily a religious problem; it is a social problem.
Research from our Stanford University lab, led by Lyons-Padilla, suggests that a similar psychological process may drive white Americans to join white supremacist and other militant right-wing groups. The slow death of manufacturing, the isolation of smaller American towns and rural areas, and stagnating working- and middle-class wages have left a broad swath of Americans feeling unmoored and insignificant. The widespread acceptance of redneck jokes, white-trash impressions, and comments about “basket of deplorables” rub salt into these wounds.
Like radical Islamic groups, white supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups offer people (especially men) who feel isolated and disempowered a chance to feel important and welcome. It’s the same psychological phenomenon, different culture war. And thus the KKK gains new recruits along with ISIL.
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee, and I still have deep ties there. One of my relatives recently commented on my Facebook status, asking my coastal liberal friends for ideas on how to keep Americans safe from terrorists. “I’m not asking this to be funny or degrading,” she wrote. “I didn’t graduate from college and live in a small town in Mississippi. I’m not trying to debate with scholars.”
In my opinion, the civil and open-minded way in which she posed her question holds a large part of the answer. If the grand US experiment in multicultural democracy is ever going to work, we must learn how to respectfully engage with people different from ourselves—even if they have not shown us the same regard.
How can we create a culture in which all people feel that their lives have value? In my research with cultural psychologist Hazel Rose Markus, we find that interdependence, rather than independence, builds stronger bridges between people from different backgrounds. Each of us has an interdependent side, which listens, relates, and seeks similarity, and an independent side, which asserts, individuates, and seeks difference.
One way to forge interdependence is to listen. We can learn to approach conversations as occasions to connect with people different from ourselves, rather than as opportunities to change their hearts and minds. “Why” questions are key: “Why do you think that? Why do you feel that? Why did you do that?”Research shows that asking meaningful questions, and listening to the answers, builds closeness between people. Plus, giving people the chance to share their viewpoints first makes them more open to hearing yours later on.
All humans tend toward tribalism. But the violence committed by terrorists and mass shooters is a reminder of how dangerous tribalism can be. We must now draw on our interdependent side to listen, relate to, and build common ground with one another—not only to expand our sense of community, but to keep the US from sliding irrevocably backwards.
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