They can come from Ireland or Peru, Chechnya or Pakistan. Some were born into wealth, others poverty, other still ordinary middle-class homes. Many have college degrees -- doctorates even. There are Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Marxists, atheists and Jews. A few work alone. Many more work in groups.
And they are impossible, or nearly impossible, to profile.
"Terrorists come from across the ideological spectrum and across the world," said Maryann Cusimano Love, professor of international politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "That's a very wide net to cast. It's not surprising there's no common profile."
The reason for that, she explained, is that "terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology." You don't have to share a common set of beliefs or a common history to resort to the tactic, a tactic of deliberately killing noncombatants in order to create fear and weaken opponents' resolve.
Terrorists do, however, share one trait. They have overcome normal moral barriers that say killing noncombatants, particularly women and children, are wrong.
"They've lost an empathy for their victims," she said. "There's distance and detachment."
For most, that detachment comes through personal exposure to violence. They either witnessed violence done to their families or communities, or they were victims of violence. In what Cusimano Love calls their "radicalizing moment" the terrorists adopt a "tit-for-tat" mentality, and then normal limitations on the use of force break down.
Other terrorists become radicalized when they encounter victims of violence. Early on in his "career," Osama bin Laden forswore targeting noncombatants. It was al-Qaida with members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, whose members were cruelly tortured in prison by the Egyptian government, that turned him.
Similarly, part of the training for many al-Qaida recruits includes repeatedly watching videos depicting violence done to Muslims, accompanied by commentary that the West bears the blame for such atrocities.
Most terrorists also see themselves or their cultures as victims of injustice.
"Injustice is key," said William Newmann, professor of political science at Virginia Common-wealth University. "They perceive some injustice, and to rectify it they use violence."
Injustice itself, he continued, won't trigger the violence. Rather, the injustice has to be paired with hope that conditions will improve. When they don't, violence ensues.
In the Middle East, Newmann said, the oil shocks that hit 30 years ago raised hopes throughout the Arab world that their newfound wealth would translate into power for the region and better economic prospects for the young. Thus far, however, that hasn't happened, and the resulting frustration deepens the pool of potential recruits for the jihadists.
The perception of injustice also accounts for what Cusimano Love terms "homegrown terrorism"-- terrorists who never saw the inside of an Egyptian prison, but rather spent their whole lives leading a comfortable middle-class existence in cities such as London.
"By world standards, they're quite wealthy," she said. "Theirs is a relative sense of depravation, a sense of being discriminated against, of being outsiders in Western culture."
It's also not atypical, she continued, for immigrants who weren't particularly religious in their homelands to become radically so in their new countries, their religious identity making up for feeling socially disconnected, but also making them easier recruits for terrorist groups.
Once the recruit commits to the group's cause, they, like all terrorists, seek to create a level of fear in their enemies disproportionate to the actual damage or threat. Through random acts of violence against noncombatants, they wage asymmetric war against a more powerful opponent, an opponent they could not defeat by conventional military means.
Whether or not terrorists can be negotiated with, said Newmann, depends on the group and their objectives.
According to Newmann, no one quite knows why some people become lifetime terrorists and others don't. Some evidence suggests that, at least for al-Qaida members, coming into contact with Muslims who aren't radicalized helps them recognize that religious and political alternatives exist.
But for the most part, he continued, what the al-Qaida brand of terrorist seems to respond to the most is "being defeated."
"That requires a long-term policy where you prove to the next generation that the violent behavior will never achieve the goal. It's consistently not giving in on the big issue. And that's hard to do because it usually means taking a lot of casualties."
It's also hard to do, Newmann continued, because "if you do it the wrong way, it makes us look as bad as al-Qaida says we are. It just creates more recruits."
That is why Newmann believes a military or police response to terrorism is not by itself enough to stop the problem. Instead, he said, a country that truly wants to protect itself has to support, on some level, changes in the countries breeding terrorists.
"The dictatorships of the Middle East have to change or the conditions in those countries will continue producing more terrorists. A more open economy and society are ultimately the solution," he said.
All is not well -- yet hope persists
<[dcp 2,2]>"Be not afraid." That's easy to say, but hard to do. Few choose fear. Most fears, rather, come upon us unwanted and unasked for.
Fear can come with urgency, forcing its way into hearts, stomachs and lungs, refusing to be ignored. Fear can also come quietly, creeping with stealth into the subconscious, a nasty, nagging, unnamed suspicion that all shall not be well. That all is not well.
And all is not well. Man is broken. We use God's gift of free will to wound the bodies and hearts of our fellow creatures. We also wound our own bodies and hearts. We abuse ourselves with lust, greed, pride, sloth, envy, gluttony and wrath. We speak cruel words, break solemn vows, rob the poor, oppress the weak and strap belts heavy with explosives to our waists before walking into cafZs thick with children.
All is not well. Bodies break, cancers grow, disease claims young and old. Cars crash, planes fall, bridges crumble. Friends betray, lovers stray, children rebel. Tsunamis flood, storms strike, earthquakes rumble. Wars rage, snipers shoot, rapists prowl.
All is not well. There is no shortage of fodder for our fears in this broken world. But we are told, "Be not afraid." A mad command. Just the sort of thing a God who died on a cross for love of his executioners would say.
And he did say it more than 300 times. Again and again, he repeats those words in the Old and New Testaments. Those pages, pages as filled with the stench of death as our world today, call us not to fear famine, plague or holocaust. They command us to take heart, to hope, to trust that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together and Christ will make all things new.
Choosing our response
Those of us who want to heed that command cannot necessarily stop what we don't choose -- the fear that takes hold in the night. But we can choose how we respond to that fear.
We can choose not to do the mad things fear makes men do. We can choose not to hate, not to harm, not to despair. We can choose not to isolate ourselves from others, not to retreat into prisons of our own making, not to adopt the jaded posture of the cynic and the skeptic.
We can choose instead to seek justice and peace. We can choose to pray for courage. We can choose to delight in and give thanks for all the random bits of beauty and goodness God sends our way each day.
We can also choose to make an offering of our fear, to hang on the cross with Christ. And we can choose to put our faith not in men and not in ourselves, but in God, believing he will bring good from all things, even things that tear our hearts in two.
Above all, we can choose to let one fear, and one fear alone, guide our actions -- the fear of disobeying, of disappointing, of betraying the God who knew fear at Gethsemene and who conquered fear at Calvary.
For that reason alone can we choose to be a people of hope. Only because of him have we cause to "Be not afraid." Only because of him, who stands ready to pour out his great grace into our weak, fearful little souls, can we love and trust and hope that one day all indeed shall be well.
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