"This is not over," cautioned French President François Hollande following the November terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130 civilians. It was a prescient warning to his countrymen and European neighbors: ISIL had infiltrated their borders and was living among them. Then four months later came the Brussels attack, and the sobering admission by Belgium authorities they could no longer keep up with the number of potential threats. Investigators in Italy, France, Germany and other European states wasted no time echoing similar concerns. They were understaffed, underfunded and unprepared to chase down every suspicious individual, package and activity.
While our allies across the pond struggled with the ramifications of porous borders, many Americans began wondering if the U.S. was any safer than Europe. Could another coordinated attack happen here?
According to the only individual to serve as Director of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General Michael Hayden, the answer is "no." For starters, Hayden says geographic distance represents a security advantage. It is much easier for ISIL to get to Europe than the U.S.
Second, the U.S. has the most sophisticated intelligence gathering technologies and experts in the world. From the ability to activate any laptop and cell phone microphone and listen-in at will (without the owner knowing their device is turned on), to using radio signals to access data on computers which are not even connected to the internet, the NSA and CIA have elevated hacking to a high art form.
But Hayden is quick to point to a third, more important reason the U.S. is safer than Europe: the absence of radicalized "communities." To this point, terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been instigated by lone actors -- not sponsored by anti-government communities who have staked out territory within a nation's borders. Speaking on The Costa Report, Hayden urged leaders -- and 2016 Presidential candidates -- to avoid the language, policies, and actions, which would encourage perpetrators to join together. "We have it fully within our ability to create radicalized communities by the way we respond to the things going on globally," said Hayden. According to the General, provocative statements -- such as "patrolling Islamic communities," "a total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States," and "they (Muslims) all hate us" are akin to setting a match to a dangerous fuse.
These sound bites are being used by ISIL and other terrorist groups as proof the West is waging war against the Islamic religion, causing American Islamic communities to feel attacked and ban together. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations agrees. Hooper recently warned, "The American Muslim community has never felt this level of apprehension and fear. It really is open season, rhetorically, on American Muslims and Islam." Recently a Muslim college student confessed to a New York Times reporter, "I feel like it's them against us -- that everybody's out to get you and you have something to prove . . . It feels like they're trying to shoot down our dreams and aspirations simply because we practice a different religion." If Hayden is right and the primary reason the U.S. is safer than Europe is the absence of radicalized communities -- what must we do to prevent violent, anti-government populations within our borders?
The answer may well come from a little known study by journalist Doug Saunders who tracked down the origins of terrorism and upheaval on five continents. Saunders discovered that rural residents are migrating to urban centers -- seeking better opportunities -- in larger numbers than in any other time in human history. These hopeful individuals initially land in what Saunders calls "arrival cities" -- impoverished slums on the outskirts of town where rent and the cost of living are cheap. They take marginal jobs such as selling fruit and flowers by the roadside, gardening and housekeeping jobs -- whatever they can find to survive.
But what Saunders discovered next may well explain why the U.S. has avoided the same fate as Europe. When governments invest in these "arrival cities" -- by building roads, schools, housing, hospitals and other infrastructure -- they invest in a pathway for new arrivals and their children to assimilate into mainstream society. History shows that through hard work the arrivals eventually become the new "middle class." These phenomena occurred following World War II when immigrants settled in slums on the outskirts of New York City and gradually assimilated, becoming homeowners, business owners, and investors and America's middle class. Similar patterns can be traced to every other urban center in the world.
Furthermore, Saunders notes that when governments ignore "arrival cities" -- allowing them to further deteriorate and become marginalized -- they become nests for insurrection and violence, the very radicalized "communities" that worries General Hayden and other security experts. The Arab Spring originated in an "arrival city" which the Egyptians ignored.
And the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels have also been traced to slums where immigrant unemployment was high, law enforcement low, and infrastructure crumbling. "Governments can play a big role in turning immigrant failure into success simply by promoting immigrant neighborhoods as places to shop, eat and do business. Too often, governments do the opposite, trying to keep visitors and tourists away from poor immigrant areas (this is a big problem in European cities). Giving a district a name, an identity, a prominently publicized mass-transit stop and some resources to make it more amenable to outside customers can turn a lost immigrant area into one teeming with people," observes Saunders.
The reason the U.S. is safer than Europe is the simple fact that the U.S. has not turned its back on "arrival cities." The government continues to invest in infrastructure and assimilation -- carving a pathway for immigrants and their offspring to earn their way out of the arrival slums. Hayden notes, "The average Islamic income in the United States is above the national average, which is certainly not true when it comes to countries in Europe." According, to the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of immigrant Muslims in the U.S. have college degrees, compared to only 25 percent for the rest of the country.
The fact that Muslims are outperforming the rest of the U.S population may well be the pivotal difference between the threat levels Europe now faces and safety in the U.S. To the extent that America continues to invest in schools, roads and the infrastructure needed for immigrants to assimilate, the country will not only benefit from the emergence of a strong middle class, but avert the antecedent of homegrown terrorism. There is no more powerful antidote to terrorism than hope. No greater elixir than opportunity. No better chance for peace than a ladder out of despair.