When Trump unleashed his Muslim ban on Jan. 27, many liberal friends and I re-circulated a 2015 New America Foundation report showing that, since 9/11, alt-right extremists have killed more people on U.S. soil than have radical Muslims. Our point was that Trump is missing the point: A Muslim ban will not keep out the terrorists because the terrorists are already here. But then I worried, did I just post fake news? Could the 2016 Orlando nightclub attack have put the jihadists ahead of the right-wingers?
To get the actual facts, I downloaded the New America Foundation’s publicly available dataset. My analyses indeed revealed that the Orlando attack, which claimed 49 lives, raised the jihadists’ death toll to 94 victims, compared to the 50 victims whom right-wing extremists have murdered.
Yet a closer look at the data confirms that the biggest terrorist threat is still U.S.-born fanatics, not foreign-born zealots. The two most lethal terrorist groups are U.S.-born jihadists (69 victims) and U.S.-born right-wing extremists (50 victims), who have murdered a total of 116 people. Foreign-born jihadists are only the third most lethal group, with a total of 25 victims.
These numbers not only suggest that an immigration ban won’t fix America’s terrorism problem, but also raise a second question: Why do homegrown Americans break bad and join the jihad or the KKK?
To this question, my fellow cultural psychologists Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele Gelfand have intriguing answers. Their research shows that what drives Muslims to radicalize is believing their lives don’t matter, a belief that is fed by feeling they don’t really belong anywhere. Discrimination, racist rhetoric, and xenophobic policies only exacerbate these feelings of “cultural homelessness,” as Lyons-Padilla explains in this TEDx Stanford talk.
Enter radical Islamic groups, which target young men who are feeling alone and adrift, and then restore their sense of belonging and meaning.
A similar psychological process seems to drive European Americans to join White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups. The slow death of manufacturing, the contraction of American towns and rural areas, and the tanking of working- and middle-class incomes have left a broad swath of Americans feeling unmoored and insignificant. The widespread acceptance of redneck jokes, white trash impressions, and “basket of deplorables” comments only salts these wounds.
Like radical Islamic groups, White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups offer their members the sense that they are important and welcome. Same psychological phenomenon, Different culture war. And thus the KKK keeps pace with ISIS.
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Memphis and still have deep ties there. One of my relatives recently posed a question to my diverse friends on Facebook: “[How can we] keep our families, friends, and people that we haven’t meet yet safe [from terrorists]? I’m not asking this to be funny or degrading. I didn’t graduate from college and live in a small town in Mississippi. I’m not trying to debate with scholars.”
I think the timbre of her question holds a large part of the answer. If the grand U.S. experiment in multicultural democracy is ever to work, we must make everyone feel included and respected, even if they have not shown us the same regard.