There’s no such thing as “lone wolf” terrorism.
The internet has opened new frontiers in misanthropy. What can we do about it?
I don’t really know what Ahmad Khan Rahami or Omar Mateen or Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were like in their everyday lives, but I’d guess that that they were deeply unhappy, in serious psychic pain. You don’t just decide to slaughter people when things are going peachy.
In an alternate timeline, they might have lived out their lives like many unhappy people do, bitter and resentful, but anonymous. Finding occasional distraction (but not satisfaction) in television, sports, food, lottery tickets. Complaining to the end.
But then — like sunlight breaking through the clouds — a cause!
A noble, worthwhile, reason for living, and for dying. A chance to give one’s life over to something greater.
The cause said: “All this pain you’re feeling? This deep unhappiness? It’s because of them.”
It also said: “And you’re not alone! Across the world, people are seeing the injustice, and they’re making them pay for it. Will you join us?”
The cause was diffuse and vague — this worked marvelously. Its lack of definition allowed these desperately unhappy people to create their own meaning from it.
And most crucially, the cause was socially validated. Whether or not these people had direct contact with support networks, they were able to access documents, news articles, forum posts, videos and other propaganda online. This helped develop, and make real, ideas that might otherwise have languished at the fringes.
Social validation matters
The most powerful force in the world is a group of human beings acting as a cohesive unit to realize a well-defined vision.
There’s a reason that politicians frame themselves as agents of a greater cause as they lead massive group rallies. There’s a reason they shave your head and put you in identical uniforms in the army. There’s a reason “company culture” is more critical to corporate success than salaries and perks.
We’re hooked on social validation. Like junkies, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it — even if it means doing things we’d individually prefer not to. Things we know are wrong.
For most of human history, social validation came from the people around you. There wasn’t much else to go off of. And besides, you were too busy staying alive to worry about whether or not the groupthink really made sense. If you had a dangerous idea, it was easier to keep it to yourself than to find other people to bounce it off of.
But the internet era has created unprecedented changes in how we access the data that form social validation. Ideas that would be unspeakable in person find validation through their open acceptance online. Whether ISIS, Occupy Wall Street or the “alt-right,” political movements in the smartphone era live in a hybrid online/offline limbo that is strikingly different from anything that came before.
Worryingly, and perhaps because of this, these movements tend towards cruelty and despair. Like any product of inner pain, they offer little besides even more pain, suffering and punishment, cloaked in righteousness.
Because inner pain, not political agendas, drive their acts, there’s no stopping the Rahamis of the world. They aren’t agents of ISIS any more than Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold were agents of the video game Doom. They’re agents of their own suffering.
They’re just misanthropic lunatics like every other mass killer.
They feel like the world is wrong, and they feel like they’re taking action to restore it.
And now they carry, in their pockets, devices that provide constant social validation for whatever they decide to think or do.
So what can we do?
In the months after Adam Lanza murdered a classroom of children at Sandy Hook elementary, his father received letters from all over the country. Many were from churches. They were saying Mass for Adam.
In the face of unthinkable evil, we must recognize our aggressors for who they are — suffering, deeply wounded. We must forgive them as best as we can manage, and we must recommit ourselves to making their world kinder. Our world kinder.
I like compassion because it’s actionable. I like actionable! I like things you and I can actually do, this very moment, that might actually help the next Mateen or Tsarnaev or Loughner see the world with optimism instead of deadly despair.
Because there is no “lone wolf” terrorism. There are only people mired in their own personal hells who find a cause that promises salvation. And online, they find powerful validation for their insane actions.
There will be more attacks. There will be people who cross that threshold from idea to action. We won’t be able to stop them, but hopefully they’ll be caught, tried and punished. (Compassion doesn’t mean passivity).
But many won’t act to bring death into the world. They’ll find a cause, too, but it will be a cause of positivity and optimism. They’ll find social validation from people who care deeply about them and their wellbeing. They’ll learn how to cope with their suffering in a healthy way.
How can we help create these positive causes? How can we socially validate joy, and love, and gratitude?
We can do it by being nicer to one another. We can do it by being mindful of what we say and do in-person and online. Of the meanness and negativity we ingest and put out into the world. We can celebrate, not ridicule, optimism and positivity.
We can define our own vision for the world and we can act cohesively to reach it. Each small act we take together will be infinitely more powerful than whatever we do alone.
We have the power. We have the tools.