How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
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Terrorism, radicalization and the polarizing politics of outrage
There has recently been another terrorist attack, this time in Brussels, and not so long after the simultaneous gun and bomb assaults in Paris, both of which left many dead and injured, and millions horrified.
Why do they do it? It's a common cry.
Aside from martyrdom, the real reason is to escalate their cause, which is to spread their fundamentalist religion and ultimately to destroy western civilisation. They believe in a prophecy of Armageddon and are working to create it.
How do they do this? Through the politics of outrage.
The first step is to outrage their enemy, who they largely see as western governments. This is the first purpose of the terrorist acts. The governments of course show public outrage (they would be castigated if they did not) and respond in various ways, from rounding up suspects to intensifying proxy wars in regions where those who seem to have energized the terrorists operate.
Outraged citizens may also take the law into their own hands, attacking innocents who are seen as linked to the terrorist group, typically by religious affiliation. The media join in too, for example pressing for total condemnation by people of the religion and then condemning them for an insufficient response.
The terrorist organisation then amplifies and plays this back to their potential supporters, highlighting the oppression of their people, outraging and radicalizing many in the process. It's a game of polarization, dividing and pushing either side to extremes, where outrage is used to justify extreme measures.
And so the cycle spins. With a few acts of barbarity, the terrorists create huge chaos, fear and knee-jerk reaction that is food for their cause. They will use understandable reprisals to persuade more to radicalism.
They also cause cause massive ongoing security costs and other disruption that costs billions and so weakens their target enemies.
If we want to break this cycle of hate, outrage and reaction, we each must step back from recrimination, even verbally so. We must try to understand realities and beware of demonizing the innocent majority. We must work to change minds rather than fall prey to outraged polarisation.
It may be hard, but it is the best way to peace.
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