[This essay was published in Indoctrination, a graphic novel by Michael Moreci.]
Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions. It can paralyze and be all-consuming. It can drive ordinary people to do extraordinary things, for better or worse. There are times, no doubt, when fear is justified and a healthy response to real danger. And there are many others when fear is deliberately manufactured — and then exploited — by those in power to further their own ends. Fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. Those who don’t share your skin color. Immigrants. Muslims. The “other.” These are the targets that seem always in vogue.
The threat of terrorism, for instance, is by any sober measure minuscule. An American is far more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist. However, that reality does not stop politicians and the media from hyping the threat of terrorism ad nauseam to justify endless war and spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year to “protect” us. We are warned that our enemy is hell-bent on our destruction and cannot be reasoned with. They are the embodiment of evil, as any great enemy is.
If only life were so simple, or we so innocent. You don’t need to dig too deep to begin uncovering the root causes of modern terrorism. People are drawn to extremist ideologies for a wide variety of reasons and every case is unique. Nevertheless, there are common threads to many stories of radicalization that we ignore at our own peril. Those on the fringes are often moved by a volatile mix of a lack of opportunity and community, in combination with a real or perceived harm. By hypocrisy, suffering and death.
In countless cases, U.S. foreign policy is the unseen midwife to terrorism. It is “blowback,” a term coined by the CIA to refer to the unintended consequences of our actions abroad — specifically those kept secret from the public. As a result, the violent reactions that our meddling provoke are perceived as coming out of nowhere. Our most reviled and feared enemies in recent decades — from Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to the Islamic State — are textbook examples of blowback.
As it has since time immemorial, violence offers the allure of a quick fix, or is at least seen as a palliative. More than simply righting a specific wrong, the goal of terrorism is often apocalyptic. That does not mean bringing about the “end of the world,” as it is commonly understood, but something closer to its original definition. In Greek, apocalypse literally means “unveiling,” or the opening of our eyes to reality and irrevocably changing the way the world is seen.
A supposed truth that the Islamic State hopes to reveal is the intolerance of the West toward Muslims and a fundamental disregard for the value of their lives. By dropping more bombs on the Arab world and restricting Muslim refugees, we only bolster their narrative and make recruitment that much easier. Now that is a fear to be taken seriously.