The June 12 mass killings in Orlando was the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001. A shooter’s rampage through a packed gay nightclub left dozens of people dead and many more wounded. The gunman swore allegiance to ISIS, and shortly after the shootings, ISIS claimed responsibility for the terror.
How can we achieve our goals of making us safer from such mass acts of terror and get revenge on ISIS by preventing it from getting what it wants?
Donald Trump repeated his call for banning all Muslims from entering the country, although this would not have done anything to address the shooter, who was a US-born American citizen. Trump also called for Barack Obama to resign the presidency because Obama refused to blame “radical Islam” for the terror.
By contrast, Obama stated ““In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another,” adding “We will not give in to fear or turn against each other. Instead, we will stand united as Americans to protect our people and defend our nation, and to take action against those who threaten us.” Hillary Clinton reacted in a similar fashion.
These two perspectives represent radically different responses to addressing this situation. Which of these is preferable for ISIS and which is most likely to make us safer from terrorism?
We know that ISIS wants to achieve the radicalization of American Muslims. Radicalizing Muslims in the US and other nations has become a central aspect of the Islamic State’s terroristic operations abroad over the last years: encouraging people to pledge allegiance to ISIS and then kill in its name.
Of course, killing is only the extreme edge of radicalization. Somewhat less radicalized people will simply support ISIS – sending it money, hiding potential terrorists, or simply looking the other way when they notice suspicious activities. The more radicalized Muslims there are, the better the situation for ISIS, and the more dangerous for us.
Whose statements and policies would make Muslims grow more radicalized, those of Obama or Trump?
The answer is easy. Trump’s suggestion that the President should resign, and that Hillary should drop out of the race, for failing to use the term “radical Islam” are perfect fodder for the kind of propaganda that ISIS uses to create more terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the US is another great tool in the ISIS campaign to radicalize the millions of Muslims in the US. If enacted, such a policy would be much more likely to create more radical Muslims in the US than it prevents from entering the US.
By contrast, Obama’s statement appeals to mutual love and unity. By speaking of all Americans loving each other, he makes Muslims feel included. Doing so decreases the sense of marginalization, alienation, and isolation, which are the key forces leading to radicalization.
Now, does this mean we should do nothing? No! Instead, we should not act immediately! We need to go against our intuitive emotional self’s desire for immediate action, we need to step back and assess the situation intentionally.
Recent research shows that after any emotionally powerful event, our brains tend to assign too much weight to that event compared to what is really important to us, a thinking error called attentional bias. To fight this thinking error, we should consider what are our actual long-term goals and how to get to them in the best possible manner.
To make ourselves more safe, and take revenge for the shooting spree, we should prevent ISIS from getting what it wants – increased radicalization of American Muslims. To target the already-radicalized Muslims, we should take quiet and covert actions that would avoid radicalizing others. This means doubling down on the efforts of law enforcement agencies while also reaching out to the Muslim leaders in our communities to work together against the radicals.
At the same time, we need to employ probabilistic thinking to recognize that sometimes terrorist acts will happen. It’s important to accept that our security will never be perfect. The only question that we can honestly ask is whether one set of policies will increase our security over another set of policies.
Radicalizing Muslims is a sure-fire way to have less security and give a wonderful gift to ISIS. Instead, let’s take the best form of revenge on ISIS by ensuring we prevent it from getting what it wants and make ourselves safer!