As we mourn the dead in Paris and governments formulate strategies to respond to terrorist violence, taking measures to mount lethal counterattacks and to protect their civilian populations, let us remember to ask: what motivates young men and women to sacrifice their own lives by taking the life of so many others? What do these young killers think they are doing? And what do their murderous deeds reveal about the psychological, social and spiritual dimensions of their lives?
Long after savage movements like ISIS are militarily defeated and their political appeal is eroded and blunted, we will still grapple with a much larger problem; namely, ingrained alienation among so many young people trying to find meaning and purpose in their lives, anxious to establish themselves as important people to be reckoned with, furious about being ignored or shunted aside to the margins and gutters of the societies in which they live and seething with enormous pent-up frustration ready to explode. In the early 20th century, they became anarchist agitators, later they swelled the ranks of socialist or communist parties, still later, they joined nationalist and anti-imperialist movements. Now, many are attracted to jihadist messages offered by fanatical Islamic groups and leaders.
Ultimately, this will not be a military problem, although our political leaders wanting to flex their muscles to reassure frightened populations will be seduced into presenting it that way. Nor are we wrestling with a fundamental clash of civilizations, although right-wing nationalist groups will be promoting their own fear and hatred. It is and will remain far more difficult than all that. We are confronting a profound existential dilemma: an enormous failure of our contemporary imagination to organize our economic, social and cultural lives to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to create and establish a meaningful life.
While many experts understand how extremist groups radicalize recruits, our knowledge about the breeding ground for prospective terrorists remains far more vague and general. Accordingly, the response to terrorist violence should involve a coordinated international effort involving our best social and behavioral scientists to enable us to precisely comprehend why so many young people are susceptible to jihadist appeals and to develop action plans for political and community leaders to integrate marginalized young people into society. Understanding and addressing the roots of terrorism will remain a vexing problem for a long time, one that challenges the fabric of our democracy and threatens individual freedom and safety. It is one of the defining issues of our time, one all civilized nations around the world must endeavor to address.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano