Any smart approach to fighting terrorism entails a lot of psychology. After all, terror groups are made up of human beings who decide, for one reason or another, to become terrorists. Researchers haven’t discovered a complete, perfect account of how radicalization works, but they have produced a rich and growing body of literature on so-called countering violent extremism (CVE), much of it couched in important insights from psychological science.
Unfortunately, when it comes to countering Muslim terror groups, not everyone buys this approach. A big, loose movement of so-called counter-jihadists — here’s an invaluable rundown of this movement by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp — instead believe that we’re engaged in an epochal clash of civilizations against a unified front of radical Islamic extremists, and that to take the nuanced, psychologically informed view mainstream CVE experts do is to demonstrate weakness against an existential threat. Donald Trump is in this camp, and his election has swept a bunch of his ideological fellow-travelers into positions of power and influence. One of them is Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s controversial special assistant in charge of counterterrorism.
In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep this morning (it starts two minutes in), Gorka lays out some of his thoughts on fighting terrorism. The whole interview is striking, in part because of its contentiousness, but the key moment comes right at the end. “We’re not going to listen to so-called terrorism experts who are linked in any way to the last eight years of disastrous counterterrorism,” says Gorka, seeming to disqualify a huge swath of the CVE establishment and promising that the Trump administration will “take a new approach.” What will that approach look like? “The last eight years of denying what the threat is, saying we need ‘jobs for jihadis,’ it’s about root causes and upstream factors, is wholly fallacious. If it were — if poverty and lack of education were the cause of education — then half of India would be terrorists, but they’re not. So it’s time for a new policy.”
It’s chilling to hear someone in such a position of power describe the vital, lifesaving hunt for root causes of terrorism as “wholly fallacious.” While Gorka is correct — albeit in what feels like a stopped-clock kind of way — that sometimes the links between socioeconomic opportunity and propensity to commit terror acts are overstated, no legitimate CVE expert anywhere thinks environmental factors play no role or that root causes are unimportant. If a country descends into civil war or is invaded, for example, it is inevitably going to turn a bunch of people who might otherwise have lived normal lives into terrorists. India has plenty of problems, but it is not Syria or Iraq, countries which have both dealt with protracted, bloody conflicts, and both of which — surprise — have also generated (and attracted) a lot of terrorists.
It would be nice, in a way, if real life were a cartoon, if all terrorists were part of the same big monolithic pure-evil group. The real world is more complicated than that — normal people can be nudged into committing horrific acts. The psychologically informed investigation of root causes has to be a big part of any CVE strategy, even if the resultant sound bites aren’t quite as crisp.