The nature of terrorism is that it’s psychological impact is far greater than its physical toll. With smoke still rising over the Westgate Mall in Kenya and at least 68 people dead, the psychological impact remains to be seen; in Kenya, and in Maine.
After Al Shabab, a Somali group inspired by Al Qaeda, claimed on Twitter that it recruited Somali-Americans, security experts pinpointed Maine as an area of concern.
Senator Angus King quickly vowed to work with the FBI and Homeland Security officials; NBC security analyst Evan Kohlmann claimed that Al Shabab has been known to recruit in the Maine Somali Community; and Rep Peter King (R-N.Y.) noted the heightened threat that comes from Portland, due to its Somali population.
The implicit argument from the three is of a fear of individuals who are marginalized by society and become homegrown terrorists. But lawmakers’ solution of increasing surveillance on what they consider high risk communities has been convoluted and has proved ineffective. Surveillance will not stop the breeding of terrorists, it will only limit the scale of impact. With this type of quick fix, our leaders do not solve the root of the problem, but rather kick the can down the curb.
Leading psychologists have all but confirmed that the causes of an individual to perform acts of terrorism are extraordinarily complex, and the assumptions by lawmakers that cultural identity is always the primary motivating factor is unfounded. If we have learned anything from the recent Navy Yard, Newton, and Aurora shootings, it is that the motivation to perform acts of violence are diverse and complex.
Instead of focusing on misleading generalizations such as cultural identity as an indicator of violence, let’s tackle the real cause of insecurity: poverty. East Timor is a prime example of how a decrease in financial aid led to a measurable and direct increase in crime. If leaders are concerned about insecurity among the Somali-American population, or any subset of society for that matter, providing better job training and more meaningful economic opportunities are essential. In 2008, only six percent of ethnic Somalis utilized services like ESL programs and business management classes, mostly due to cultural and language barriers. A number of organizations have taken up the challenge to provide further job training, but a more centralized resource is required from the state and federal government.
Issues like poverty don’t receive attention in elections and in the news because they represent the slow decay of our society, rather than the sudden burden which needs attention. There are no bombs to drop on poverty, no SEAL team 6 to call in against unskilled workers, but they are issues that unite the political spectrum. Focusing on programs that fight poverty appeal to Democrats drive for a more equal playing field, but since job training programs are cheaper than dropping bombs, it would appeal to Republicans’ fiscal responsibility.
If we are to create solutions and meet these challenges head on, instead of abdicating responsibility we will recognize that increasing surveillance does not fix insecurity. While we may be able to measure the lives lost from physical violence, we can never count the lives lost due to poverty.