In our last Humphrey Seminar class, I was one of the few people who shook my head when Dr. Silcock asked whether or not we remembered the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I was three years old when the attacks happened, and as uniquely horrifying as the day was, I genuinely don’t remember it at all; whether this was by design, through the protection of my parents or preschool teachers, or simple happenstance, I’m not sure. What I do know is that this lack of memory doesn’t actually feed into a lack of consciousness surrounding the topic — rather, I would argue that the “post-9/11 generation” has experienced a heightened sense of awareness of terrorist attacks and mass violence during their formative years compared to previous generations.
While 9/11 has remained a major influence on the lens through which we view American culture and life since its occurrence, I can point to several other major incidents of mass violence that occurred on U.S. soil that had a similar influence. For example, the massacre at Columbine High School, which occurred in 1999, had a huge impact on our notion of where exactly terrorism could occur, just like 9/11 did — in a pedestrian setting, where people flocked for school or work, simply carrying out the everyday motions of their lives. My parents, who had just moved to the U.S. the year before, feared that I or my older brothers would eventually fall victim to a similar tragedy simply by going to school in this country. The grim, unspeakable horror of such a tragedy occurring again with students much younger than those of Columbine High School actually became a reality in 2012, when 20 children between the ages of six and seven years old were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Several years before that, in 2007, a mass shooting occurred on the campus of Virginia Tech University, in which there were 32 victims; in 2012, another mass shooting took place at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. In 2015, another mass shooting occurred at a historically black church in Charleston, Virginia, and in 2016, yet another occurred at a gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando, Florida. All of these attacks occurred within the last 20 years, and this overview hardly scratches the surface — there are countless other instances of smaller attacks across the United States that fall along this timeline too.
A video on mass shootings as a form of American terrorism. Credit: Buzzfeed Studios
No place is truly safe from the threat of a terrorist attack — not schools, or churches, or movie theaters, or nightclubs, or office buildings…the list goes on and on. The common intention driving these attacks is likely the need to instill fear in the general public, to control its behavior and infringe on its sense of security. Additionally, many of these perpetrators are later characterized as having some sort of personal spite against the world at large, feeling wronged somehow in their own lives, with their attacks representing how troubled their lives were until that point. In other words, these perpetrators are often seen as “lone wolves,” a trope that often implies that each attacker acted alone for deeply personal, complicated reasons.
However, I believe that it is not enough to rest with this portrayal. The mere feeling of being scorned or outcast itself doesn’t guarantee that someone will become a domestic terrorist; there must be a larger force at play, one that pushes an individual from this vulnerable state to the emboldened one that allows them to carry out mass violence with confidence. Instead, I think it’s important to study how radicalization occurs, how to recognize when it’s happening, and how to prevent it before it culminates in yet another heinous attack. It’s easy for us to recognize that terrorists from other countries, of other ethnicities or religions or nationalities, are somehow radicalized by belonging to an identifiable hate group. We need to be able to look at these attacks in the same way.
Recently, I read an article titled “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof,” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. The piece provides a lengthy, detailed profile of what exactly created “one of the coldest killers of our time,” following his life step-by-step and seeking the cues as to how Roof became radicalized enough to carry out his racist agenda. While Roof could be lazily characterized as another “lone wolf,” the article points out that part of what made Roof who he was — the fact that he could find others on the Internet who agreed with his beliefs and exacerbated them, and the fact that no one in his life took serious note of his vitriol towards black people until it was far too late.
While Roof is certainly different from the members of the terrorist groups, like ISIS, that carry out some of the more global occurrences of terrorism — for example, the attacks in Paris or Manchester — he serves as an example of how radicalization can manifest in Americans and allow them to commit such atrocities against their own nation. Similarly, we should attempt to call attention to how this process occurs continually over time and how exactly it occurs. As much as we would like to believe that there’s only a handful of bad people in the world who commit such attacks, the fact of the matter is that these hateful ideologies, no matter whom they target, live on because they have a willing audience.
The solution to terrorism doesn’t stop there; I believe that it can also be supplemented by more open and frank discussions about the factors that allow terrorism to occur, case studies of other instances of mass violence in other countries, and serious consideration of the role that media can play in the fight against terrorism. However, for a country whose current culture rests so heavily on the background of 9/11, we still have difficulty calling out terrorism as perpetuated by American citizens and calling it for what it is. Thus, I believe that doing so is a necessary step forward.
For a final perspective, I asked my parents for their thoughts on solving terrorism. According to my father, solving terrorism requires a multi-pronged approach that involves recognizing the different kinds of terrorists we see and then addressing how we regard and approach each category. Furthermore, he told me that, on a more global scale, those who don’t have a lot of money or political autonomy — who feel marginalized — may be more prone to becoming radicalized. If these people can be brought up economically, he says, we can take another step towards finding a solution. My mother agreed with these viewpoints, and she also reminded me that, when regarding the existence of hate groups in the global fight against terror, we must remember that terrorism often operates in a self-sustaining cycle of attacks and counter-attacks. Thus, it’s even more important to understand the motivations of the other side, even if we also condemn them and recognize them as unjust and evil. I believe that another potential method of alleviating terrorism is by encouraging these dialogues about the possible solutions to the problem.
Edit: Further attribution was added after the initial publication of this post.