Terrorism on American soil is not new. Nor are crimes of hate. Since at least the 19th century, politically motivated citizens have used violence to kill for a purpose. What makes the horrible massacre in Orlando stand out is its connection to a more recent phenomenon — the murder of large numbers by a single attacker.
Even though gun ownership has always been widespread in American society, premeditated murder of innocent mass crowds has only become common during the past 20 or so years. Shooters such as Omar Mateen are not connected to movements that hope to improve society but instead desire to bring the whole edifice of civil society crumbling down around their anger. That’s why they target schools, churches, clubs and other public spaces. That’s why they pledge allegiance to foreign groups like ISIS. And the problem is much deeper than anything we might simply label “Islamic radicalism.”
So why now? Our racial, ethnic and religious diversity are not new; we have always been a country of immigrants. Attitudes of hate and prejudice are not new; our country’s horrible history of lynching and vigilantism shows that powerful groups have frequently attacked the vulnerable. What’s new is an explosive mix of cultural, political and technological changes.
Our public culture today valorizes individual combat and gratuitous violence. This is not just a problem with the entertainment industry but our leadership as well. Presidential candidates, governors, CEOs and even some university presidents strut and brag about “shock and awe,” “annihilating evil” and “carpet bombing,” among other phrases. And this is not just rhetoric. Winner-take-all combat is acted out in our sports, our businesses and our policymaking every day. Our 21st century public culture glorifies individualist destruction.
Since 2000, our national and foreign politics have replaced conversation with violence. We have legitimately deployed force against terrorists abroad, including ISIS, but we have refused to engage in a thoughtful public discussion about the social and economic reasons people are drawn to these groups. We have divided the world and ourselves — “you are with us or against us” — and we have justified extremism of our own because the adversaries are so “evil.”
The policy effects have come home when presidential candidates brag about shutting down the government, insult our leaders and defend physical attacks on domestic opponents. Our politics are tribal and, in a war of tribes, ISIS has leverage to recruit and inspire those who have no other group to call their own.
Technology is not the cause of our cultural and political violence, but it multiplies our hatreds. The paradox of social media is that they’re global and provincial at the same time. We can communicate simultaneously with counterparts far away. They can see so much more. Instead of cosmopolitanism, however, these connections encourage balkanization. Individuals stop talking to neighbors, classmates and co-workers and instead communicate with people who think like them on other continents.
This creates tribal echo chambers where distortion and extremism become unfiltered “facts” and personal motivators. The worst and simplest ideas get reinforced. Sophisticated and complex understandings of society, which require multiple points of view, are lost. Terrorists such as Mateen are brainwashed not just by ISIS but by our tribal world of communications.
What to do? Blaming ISIS does not get at the root of the problem. Targeting Muslims diverts attention and actually creates more terrorists.
The time has come for leaders at all levels of our society to begin working toward rebuilding a civic culture that values conversation, compromise and diverse communications. That must be a priority that every one of our leaders affirms. Our leaders must begin by looking closely at themselves and asking how they can model what is not being modeled almost anywhere today. We need a culture of peacemaking, not violence. We need politics of inclusion, not attack. And a civic dialogue with multiple points of view in direct conversation. At the very least, the events in Orlando should motivate us to reject any advocates of violence, hate and tribalism in our country today.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin. He is author of “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama.”