Although I have studied jihadist culture for a decade, I am still astounded and dismayed by its ability to inspire individuals to take innocent life. The husband and wife team who slaughtered 14 and wounded 21 in San Bernardino were just the latest in a long line of killers who have embraced a violent version of ultraconservative Sunni Islam.
He notes that we can understand States killing innocents since the people at the top aren’t usually the ones doing the actual killing, and the more remote, the easier it is to do. And those who do do the executions generally undergo long-term training to overcome their natural aversion to killing.
But how did sane people like the San Bernardino assassins, independent of experience in a militia and without years of organized training, manage to overcome this natural aversion on their own? How did they convince themselves that the slaughter of innocents was necessary and right?
The answer, in brief:
Culture. Our brain may be wired to love our own group and dislike outsiders, but culture is the software that helps us determine who’s in and who’s out. The less we empathize with someone, the easier it is to kill them.
Jihadist culture is exceptionally good at decreasing empathy for outsiders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as the Norwegian political scientist Thomas Hegghammer shows in a forthcoming volume. Jihadists use scripture, stories, songs, art, and poetry to foster group solidarity and encourage violence against a wide circle of enemies. Individuals who adopt the culture make sense of the world through its prism and seek to convince others of its truth. Even the most isolated can connect over social media to find likeminded people who will encourage them and goad them to action.
Is it going to get any better if/when the Islamic State is destroyed? The State is “teaching its vile ideology to children on an industrial scale and ordering them to carry out attacks and execute prisoners” — and those children will be with us a long time to come.
And what of our reactions? It’s not a long article. It can be read very quickly: How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill
“Who is William McCants?” you ask. From the time.com site:
William McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, and the author of The ISIS Apocalypse. He is adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.