Donald Trump and the Terrorism Loop

In my most recent post I discussed several explanations of religious terrorism in international relations scholarship. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it is thorough. Bottom line: Terrorism is more common in the Muslim world for a host of reasons, but absent from any scientific study is something inherent in Islam. Although Islam informs many terrorists’ behaviors, the causal factor of terrorism is almost always something else. Unfortunately, the current US administration seems completely oblivious to this. And more unfortunately—and patently obvious—the US seems to be instigating terror.

Indeed, this was not lost on MSNBC reporter Thomas Roberts yesterday when he questioned whether Donald Trump was “trying to provoke a domestic terrorist attack with this Twitter rant because—only to prove himself right?” The fact that a reporter would even ask that question demonstrates at least a basic understanding of how radicalization occurs.

US President Donald Trump ran a campaign on US security. And it is still one of his top priorities. It became George W. Bush’s top priority early on in his administration. But while Bush evolved as a president through trial and a lot of error, ultimately orchestrating one of the most brilliant war moves (the surge), it is less obvious that Trump will evolve. What’s worse, while Obama piggy backed off Bush’s mistakes, eager to avoid repeating them, Trump is doubling down on Bush’s mistakes, magnifying them into potentially deadly catastrophes.

If Trump is concerned with US security then it should heed our warnings. In the words of Professor and Eminent Scholar Simon Serfaty, “A refugee denied is a terrorist made.” This is a quote that stuck with me during a seminar he gave a couple years ago. And while Serfaty was specifically talking about refugees, it is this basic line of reasoning that explains most of what we know about Jihadist terror. And to not heed this reasoning is to invite terrorism anywhere and everywhere.

Poverty, humiliation, desperation, insecurity, and intolerable conditions are some of the reasons people turn to terror in war torn countries. These all represent failures to meet basic human needs. When human beings desperately beg for help, only to be turned away or mocked by the sitting US president, it only reinforces the appeal of terror. If the options are death or shelter, food, and jobs (from terrorists), then the answer is obvious.

Or domestically, if the audience sees the US mistreating people with whom the audience identifies (through ethnicity, religion, or something else), then the perception of honor makes revenge their duty (for example, Timothy McVeigh sought revenge because he believed the US government was murdering right wing and white political dissidents). Trump seems hell bent on mistreating Muslims domestically and abroad. And at some point otherwise reasonable American citizens will feel more allegiance to their own mistreated community than they will to people outside that community who—they believe—share some of the blame.

Terrorism will never go extinct. But we have a pretty good grasp on its causes, and preventing it is often as simple as figuring out the needs of an at-risk population. It’s not fun and consumes a lot of energy and resources, but it is a better method than to double down on the things that cause terrorism in the first place. So to answer Roberts’ question, no Trump is not trying to cause terror to prove himself right (at least as far as I can tell), but he is sure as hell inviting it through an unforgivable ignorance. It’s his job to know these things!

The irony—I would guess—is that one of the explanations for terrorism also explains why Trump makes these mistakes. He feels white America is under threat from an outside other. It is his duty to protect his clan. In other words, there is no hope for Trump. Even if he knew how to stop terrorism he would make the wrong choice. Fear and duty compel us to irrationality, precisely the same way terrorists are compelled to terror. We are stuck in a loop.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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