No Thanks, ISIS, We’ve Got Terrorists Already: How Poverty and Hopelessness Radicalize Our Own

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Donna chiede elemosina in strada nell'indifferenza dei passanti

We all know it too damned well, but the best of us know to know better: a ferocious attack like the sinful havoc wrought on Paris takes place, and a perfunctory chorus erupts. Swift, unthinking action must be taken! The “thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families,” says holocaust-enthusiast Donald Trump. “The U.S. simply cannot, should not and must not accept any Syrian refugees,” says Dr. Ben Carson. As stupid and ultimately counterproductive as such sentiments are, fighting words are indeed in order—of course terrorism is a pox upon the human endeavor, and in Dr. Carson’s words, must be eradicated. But those in the business of keeping us free from mad, armed assailants should note: American lives lost globally to terrorism, between 2001 and 2013, numbered 3,380. In that same period, Americans murdered by Americans exercising their 2nd Amendments rights, strictly on U.S. soil, would total 406,496. Did you know any of the victims? Statistically, there’s an excellent chance of it.

Let’s never mind for now sticky issues like gun control. In tackling a foreign terrorist threat, military analysts know enough to ask why: what conditions lead so many to devote their whole being to a bloodthirsty, lunatic cause? We cannot hope to defeat the enemy without understanding them. In terms of the suicidal carnage we wreak on ourselves, the same question ought be due: why? Why Aurora, why Sandy Hook, why this endless death parade? One answer might lie in two of history’s greatest villains: Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

That Lincoln was entirely villainous is of course a statement made in jest. He was merely the steward, and a very decent one, of the rupturing of an inflammation woven into America’s cotton fabric since its inception. The unduly streamlined tale is this: of the original 13 American colonies, few in the North saw any ethical justification for the ownership of human beings; more truthfully, their economies had no good use for slavery. While the polar opposite was true of the South, both ends knew that freedom from English rule was impossible without a cooperative effort. By the time of Lincoln’s presidency, the pimple had crested. The Emancipation Proclamation might not have been a purely righteous thing in and of itself, but rather, a means of crippling the South’s wartime resource factory.

For centuries prior, volumes of practical, philosophical, and even theological arguments were made to explain why folks of an obviously African background were somehow less human than Godly white Americans. With the Civil War, the practice of slavery ended. But the heavily entrenched cultural sentiment that made it all possible pervades us still.

That Reagan was among history’s greatest monsters is, to be frank, not far from the mark. His affable, rosy-cheeked smile arrived in the White House just when Americans needed such an empty, feel-good pick-me-up. From there, he broke the backs of the unions securing workers’ rights, and implemented grotesquely large “trickle-down” tax cuts for the wealthiest alone—the sort not seen since just before the crash of ‘29. And we’re doing it still. You’ll hear no more informed and gregarious a telling of it all than the one by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. His documentary, Inequality for All, makes too compelling a case to ignore: with Reagan came a fresh wave of inescapable generational poverty.

When stirred by the unforgivable savagery of a group like ISIS, the bellicose barking of phrases like “bomb the s— out of ’em” gratify a knee-jerk emotional need. But immediate emotional assurance is hardly the same as defeating a real and present enemy. So it’s asked by those looking for a well-advised path to victory: why do some Muslims—by no stretch all of them, quite verifiably—see fit to chop heads off like militarized Vikings on meth? Well, they live in unimaginably impoverished places. They’ve got no means to become educated, no avenue for gainful employment, no one in government who’s truly in their corner. They’ve got a festering rage and no other opportunity but to crash and burn, the human toll be damned.

That’s us, friends—that’s 48 million of us for whom nothing worthwhile ever trickled down. Those whose parents were destitute, who are themselves destitute, who cannot imagine siring progeny who could be anything other than destitute—we’ve got that right here. It gets worse. An anxious sliver of those in this predicament were only ever groomed to think: this sort of agony was only supposed to happen to black people. Of course that sentiment is disgusting, wholly ignorant, wholly un-American. But some in our country still swear by it. And it’s a horrifying blow to one’s ego, to find yourself living just like a people you’ve despised. It’s the sort of thing that makes a hopeless fellow want to take up arms.

This is not to say that every American killing you’ll hear of today, and again tomorrow, and here on out in perpetuity, can be boiled down strictly to a matter of racism. But common threads have emerged: these people once believed in the American dream, and they did not care to be swindled out of it. We were promised better.

If the threat involves a brown-skinned people in a country we’ve just today heard of, we know we must take action. Realistically, however, you’re still free to waltz into a Wal-Mart with the reasonable expectation that bin Laden himself won’t go flying any planes into you. As per your children getting mowed down by one of your own radicalized countrymen: good luck. You’re on your own. Invest in Kevlar.

Should Reaganomics rule the day—it still does—lives will be lost at the hands of those who’d never had a real shot at living. How do we take care of ourselves? We might begin by taking care of ourselves.

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