In the aftermath of a horror like the Orlando mass shooting, we often turn to religious or political ideologies as explanation. For example, the shooter’s last-minute pledge to ISIS must have signified the real reason he committed such a heinous act.
There is some truth to this. Certainly your beliefs influence how you treat others.
But a focus on ideology ignores two things.
▪ First, ideology alone does not kill. Nearly all people hewing to the major world ideologies will never cause physical harm to anyone. Ideologies that do actively preach violence tend to be so warped from the mainstream as to be unrecognizable. Comparing these warped “radical” offshoots to mainstream religious or political ideologies serves only to alienate those in the mainstream, with little benefit in terms of trying to stop violence.
For example, terrorist groups associate themselves with Islam, despite radically perverting its tenets. They do so because falsely claiming a shared religion gains them recruits. It also spurs the repression of Muslims. Provoking state repression has been a common strategy of terrorist groups of all ideologies. Its goal is to alienate from the state those who might otherwise oppose the groups and to draw support from those who might otherwise be indifferent. The reason to avoid using phrases like “radical Islam” is not political correctness; it’s to avoid aiding terrorist groups’ recruitment.
▪ Second, focusing on ideology is not practically helpful. We do not and cannot legislate against it. We won’t shut down the internet or prohibit conversations or destroy all our books. More to the point, we can’t stop people from thinking horrible thoughts.
The fact is, the ideologies of those who commit violence are not really of interest. Ideologies supporting violence have changed over time. The historical record does not provide a singular ideology of violence, any more than it does a singular set of personality traits leading to violence. And that’s despite a great deal of effort put into finding one.
We’d do better just ignoring the ideologies claimed by those who would do violence. Doing so would give adherents of such ideologies less incentive to commit violence to earn notoriety and make recruitment more difficult for the groups. Most importantly, though, this would allow us to focus on practicable ways to thwart violence.
This is where the difference between coordinated and “inspired by” terrorism enters. Coordinated terrorism involves communication, the transfer of resources and coordination among members of a group of some size. All of these are security risks to the group. Established methods of law enforcement and intelligence can be used to take advantage of these risks to degrade and destroy the group in order to minimize the damage it can do.
Knowing that an attack was coordinated by a terrorist group is therefore important. It dictates concrete, lawful ways to combat the threat that have often little to do with the ideology of the sponsoring group.
Now consider so-called “inspired by” terrorism. Here, people radicalize based on someone else’s words or deeds and then commit an attack. However, they receive no material help from an outside group. What do we gain from knowing that the attack was inspired by some ideology?
Even if we could determine, somehow, that the attacker was motivated by this ideology and is not merely using it to justify his actions after the fact, it’s unclear what we could do about it. As noted, we’re not going to prohibit speech. Even if we tried, technology would eventually cause us to fail.
We might be able to observe when people view or read or listen to radical speech. But, short of a future with Big Brother over our shoulders, this is not going to be effective in identifying potential terrorists before they’re on government’s radar.
So, short of direct contact between a potential terrorist and a known inciter of violence, there’s little practical benefit to understanding the attacker’s ideology – and no reason to bother distinguishing “inspired by” terrorism.
Instead, let’s save our concern about the looming threat of terrorist groups for terrorism actually coordinated by these groups. And rely on law enforcement, community goodwill and reasonable restrictions on weapons availability to minimize the consequences of being “inspired” to commit terrorism.
David A. Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.