Lone wolves can make a pack


author: nick giokas | contributor

credit: newyorkweb_guillaurme via Flickr


“What’s going on” is that we’re seeing the tree for the forest and missing what’s really going on.

“What’s going on” is that we’re seeing the tree for the forest and missing what’s really going on.

With the recent attacks in New York and Minnesota, there is a harsh reality we have to face: terrorist attacks are a new norm. As a society we have always sent out our thoughts and prayers, but in recent years we’ve had to come face to face with the question we’re all asking: “What’s going on?” It’s natural, when faced with tragedy, to seek answers, to create narratives, to call for change; but issues arise when we create false narratives and call for policies that solve nothing. There is a growing wave of fear in the West in the wake of this rise in attacks – rightfully so – but with fear comes short-sightedness. The focus of our societal zeitgeist has been zeroed in on Islamic terrorism, ignoring the far larger warning signs. “What’s going on” is that we’re seeing the tree for the forest and missing what’s really going on.

There’s a common trend among the terror attacks in recent years: a surge in lone-wolf attacks fuelled by self-radicalization. In the past, counter-terrorism could focus on those individuals that were converted through person-to-person means. Now, the reality is that people are simply becoming radicals on their own. The internet has done many things, but the most unfortunate is the ease and inevitability that individuals seal themselves in ideological echo chambers. The tools we’re given on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Tumblr allow us to self-select our peer group. This process of self-selection inevitably drives one to block out dissenting opinion or disagreement and find a peer group that largely agrees with oneself. Due to the vast nature of the internet, there’s simply not enough time to seek out the other side’s views and the amount of effort in drudging through opposing viewpoints on a forum that is diametrically opposed to your ideals is understandably too large. The unfortunate thing is that it’s completely defensible to become ideologically complacent.

This complacency is the fuel for self-radicalization. The main issue with ideological echo chambers is that they often have an accelerated ideological drift. It’s natural that peer groups drift ideologically over time but since dissenting opinions are increasingly scarce, this process is sped up. The side effect of this is that rather than have the population of these increasingly radical peer groups decline, as they grow increasingly extreme in their views, the peer group expands instead. This is often because those on the fringes flock to these larger peer groups as their previously more fringe ideas become mainstream. Since we’re stuck in peer groups where we all agree with each other we often don’t question what “we” are all agreeing on and allow ourselves to be influenced and succumb to this ideological drift. The issue with political views is that we don’t often question the axioms or origins of our views but instead plough on ahead with them in tow. Ideas that are factually or morally wrong end up taking root due to a lack of challenge.

We’d like to believe that terrorists became radicals due to some innate failing on their part. This is why we always drudge up the question of mental health when these attacks happen. Which is not to say mental health isn’t an issue, it’s an important one, but we often refuse to acknowledge that some of these people are simply one step removed from our peers or ourselves. You’ve probably noticed how I’ve almost completely avoided Islamic “extremism” in this op-ed. This is because, as much as the sound bites might claim, the issue isn’t specifically Islamic extremism but extremism of every stripe. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre we’ve witnessed a record year in growth for far-right, white supremacist, and black supremacist groups: this growth in general extremism has also been noticed by the FBI and the RAND organization. It’s not simply that Muslims are becoming more extreme, it’s that everyone is.

In the past year we’ve seen in the US: white supremacist attacks (like in Charleston), far-right attacks (like in Oregon), black supremacist attacks (like in Dallas), and Islamic extremist attacks (like in New York). And for each of these newsworthy attacks, there are countless smaller attacks that went without an international news story. This is a trend that isn’t going to be stopped by greater scrutiny in immigration or by so-called “crackdowns.” The scary thing is that we’re all culpable. We all have to self-police, call issues into question, and be there for those of our peers that are staring into the abyss of extremism. There’s no silver bullet because we’ve simply reached a societal crucible where there’s no easy answers, and the road is a long one.

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