Defeating Terrorism and Extremism: How Community Wins Over Hate

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Violence has become a staple in the news. This climate of violence extends across many platforms. There has been a string of attacks targeting Europe this summer in Barcelona, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Russia, and let’s not forget the constant struggle the Middle East endures with terrorist groups such as ISIS and the unstable governments that have been unable to quell the threats in the region. With terror-related deaths spiking tenfold what they were prior to 9/11, we’re seeing now more than ever that the world is shifting towards violence in a time where words hold more power than ever.

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Many are quick to point the finger at the Middle East or even Islam as the birthplace of terrorism, and when violent incidents occur the first thought that goes through people’s heads is whether or not it was an act of terrorism. But the climate of violence and terrorism is not limited to those in or from the Middle East, and is definitely not exclusive to one single religion such as Islam. Lately, we’ve seen uprisings in the United States due to political unrest, such as the recent clashes between neo-Nazi groups and Antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Berkeley, and more. Now that extremist violence has become so routine in our news reports, it’s almost as if people are becoming numb to how big of a problem it is. What people fail to realize is that what makes a terrorist from ISIS is the same very thing that pushes those from the US or other countries to adhere to an ideology based on violence, effectively becoming domestic terrorists. In this way, all extremists are cut from the same cloth.

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People like Omar Mateen and Dylann Roof, the Pulse nightclub terrorist and the Charleston church terrorist, all start out the same way. They start out like us. The vast majority of time, terrorists are ordinary people with a normal sense of what is right and what is wrong. They’re not the psychopathic bloodthirsty monsters that they end up becoming as a result of some wrong turn they made in life. What breeds the ideology and turns it into extremes, ultimately pushing violence as a resolution, is group dynamics. These group dynamics skew the understanding of what is right and what is wrong and leads individuals to see their violent outburst as just and moral. Studies done by psychologists, such as the Stanley Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiment prove this to us, that anybody is prone to become the monster that they fear.

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Much like in the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments, when ordinary people are exposed to circumstances that push conformity in a group that is not immediately understood to be “wrong”, they will sometimes react in a manner that pleases the group. In these two experiments, this led to violent reactions that haunted the participants even after the study had ended. The same thing happens to people who eventually end up becoming terrorists in the real world. By joining a group that gives somebody a place and seemingly values them, that person is inclined to subscribe to that group’s dynamics. So, when a respected leader or a majority advocates for a certain thought or action, the individual is effectively brainwashed into going along with it. These groups seek out things to exploit and exacerbate minor or perceived major problems to turn them into rage-inducing, hyper-focused issues that supposedly require some sort of radical action. It simply becomes impossible to resist it when you’ve already invested into the community or ideology. While the actions of these terrorists are by no means excusable, a lot of them are also victims of having been taken advantage of by these groups who target vulnerable people who just want to belong.

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What perpetuates the rage and hatred is the outside world’s reaction to it. Take the Muslim terrorist group ISIS for example. The problem of ISIS is perpetuated because of the Western world’s hatred for not only the organization, but also the religion they claim to be affiliated with. It gets to such a point, that many Westerners become skeptical and even hostile towards all Muslims. Unfortunately, this undue hostility can have the effect of pushing people into these extremist groups because they’ve lost a sense of belonging and of purpose in their normal society and must seek an alternative one. These organizations aren’t dumb. They want other’s hostility and animosity towards them to grow as much as possible because it results in the filling of their ranks. They exploit the isolation that Islamophobia and xenophobia creates. The more we fear, the more we grow to hate, the more power terrorist groups gain.

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It all comes down to the same dynamic that you likely faced in high school or simply society in general, a pressure to conform. The greater that pressure is, the more somebody will be willing to do, the more of themselves and their own ideas and thoughts they are willing to sacrifice. That pressure is at an all-time high because these groups feel that their very existence as individuals and as a group is threatened, they feel their ideals are under attack. They become like agitated animals backed into a corner, and the only way out of it, for them, is violence. Not only that, but the hate and fear mix to make the individual completely lose sight of their empathy, they simply focus on their task at hand and aren’t willing to divert from their own role in accomplishing the goals of the group. As a result, they have no qualms destroying everything in their way and taking dozens of human lives as long as it means accomplishing their goal. The question then comes naturally, what can we do to relieve some of this pressure to conform? How do we prevent the culture of extremism from developing and thriving?

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The reality is, we can’t beat terrorism. Once somebody is radicalized, the likelihood of de-radicalization becomes low. You can’t prevent extremist attacks by banning the sale of guns or tracking fertilizer shipments. Like the recent Barcelona and Turku attacks show us, terrorism is becoming more about opportunity than actual weaponry. The weapon used in for the attack isn’t actually important. It’s the one wielding the weapon that we need to focus on, and our focus must direct to learning how to prevent people from being radicalized in the first place. People go from being completely normal and living their daily lives to radicals in a matter of mere days, there isn’t time to stop it once it begins.

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Individuals need an alternative group to join that isn’t prone to violence. We need to push for a strong, close-knit community and open-mindedness again if we’re going to beat this plague of hatred that has infected the entire world. In the case of the Sandy Hook shooting, townspeople had said that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was always quiet and kept to himself and reported that he was even bullied at times. We can’t let people feel like they have no place in society if we have any hope at preventing violent outbursts that claim thousands of lives each year. The very first step we have to take is figuring out how to be community oriented again and make sure that there’s a place for everyone within that community.

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This is not something we can sit back and wait for the government, policymakers, or law enforcement to handle. This isn’t something we can wait for somebody else in our towns and cities to spearhead. This is something that falls on the responsibility of every single person in the world, something that we all have to do our part in. If a neighbor seems closed off and isolated, extend a helping hand and try to help them feel like they’re not an outcast. This is what it means to be a true ambassador of compassion, love, and peace, everything that Azuro Republic stands for. Do your part in making the world a better place and set an example of love and acceptance. Only then can we show people that extremism is not their only option.

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