Terrorism: A Challenge for the Social Sciences

We live in dangerous times. Our mean streets have become killing fields. During the past year police officers have shot and killed many unarmed African- American men. During the past year Christian terrorists have (1) killed nine innocent African Americans in a historic Charleston, South Carolina church and (2) a police officer and two innocents at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs. During the past year, Muslim terrorists have slaughtered 130 Parisians in The City of Light and 14 innocent people attending a holiday gathering in San Bernardino, California

What's the world coming to?

How can we come to grips with these senseless acts of violence--all too often in the name of religion?

Sadly, a common response to terrorism is bigotry and xenophobia. "They are invading 'us." "They (who are always different from "us") are trying to kill "us," attempting to destroy our civilization. "They" must be stopped. If these statements seem far-fetched, consider the comments of Jerry Falwell, Jr. in response to the San Bernardino attacks, as reported in The New York Post.

Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. urged students Friday (December 4) to carry concealed weapons on campus to counter any possible armed attack, saying that 'we could end those Muslims before they walk in...'

'Let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,' Falwell told students at the Christian school.

'I've always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,' Falwell said.

Considering the ever-expanding cloud of Islamophobia in Europe and the US and the importance of the campus gathering, how likely is it that Mr. Falwell misspoke? Would the students there really think he was referring to a tiny percentage of the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world? Would Falwell consider Muslims carrying a concealed weapon to be "good" people?

Fueled by the recent terrorist events, xenophobia and bigotry have infected European and American political discourse. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party, Le Front National, made significant gains in the recently concluded first round of French regional elections. In an equally xenophobic atmosphere Republican presidential candidates, most of whom say we are at "war" with radical Islam, have now called for, among many things, carpet bombing ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq, for "taking out" "their" families, for re-instituting the torture (waterboarding) of the "enemy," for increasing surveillance of mosques and social activity in Muslim neighborhoods, for accepting Christian but rejecting Muslim refugees from Syria, and, as of today, for a complete ban of Muslims entering the US.

This rhetoric is nothing less than ugly fear mongering to an increasingly fearful public. In such a climate of fear, many Americans may be willing to give up on the basic principles of our open society--freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to privacy. These are the principles that prevent us from becoming a police state.

Indeed there is an increasing segment our society that would use the uncertainties associated with a pervasive climate of fear to throw out the separation of church and state and eliminate the secular foundation of our society. Writing in truthdig Chris Hedges recently stated:

Tens of millions of Americans, lumped into a diffuse and fractious movement known as the Christian right, have begun to dismantle the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment. They are creating a theocratic state based on 'biblical law,' and shutting out all those they define as the enemy. This movement, veering closer and closer to traditional fascism, seeks to force a recalcitrant world to submit before an imperial America. It champions the eradication of social deviants, beginning with homosexuals, and moving on to immigrants, secular humanists, feminists, Jews, Muslims and those they dismiss as 'nominal Christians' -- meaning Christians who do not embrace their perverted and heretical interpretation of the Bible. Those who defy the mass movement are condemned as posing a threat to the health and hygiene of the country and the family. All will be purged.

The millions of people who adhere to this set of beliefs maintain an ideology that denies science, secularism and religious difference. Considering the rhetoric of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio, this ideology has become an integral part of our political discourse. It is an ideology that feeds upon the celebration of ignorance and a distrust of reason. Although the texture of its expression may vary, this ideology--at its foundation--gives shape to a worldview shared by strange bedfellows: the Christian Right and the Salafists of the Islamic State.

This potentially catastrophic culture of ignorance presents a profound challenge for the social sciences. In a time when the enemies of reason threaten the future of the sciences and the humanities, it is time for scholars to step up to the plate. It is time for us to become engaged in two domains: the public arena and the classroom. In the public sphere we need to combat anti-reason with compelling and accessible accounts of how to confront a troubling world with a clear-sighted precision that accepts and works through the complex issues of our times--racism, income inequality, climate change and terrorism. In the coming months, we need to be more prominent in the blogosphere, a space where our fears, passions, problems and potential solutions can be articulated--a powerful force for reason in unreasonable times.

The second domain is in the classroom--a pivotal battleground in the assault against ignorance. Taking the long view, if we teach our students how to think critically and clearly, how to weigh the validity of evidence, and how to express themselves clearly and powerfully, they will stand on a foundation that will enable them to grow into engaged citizens in a vibrant, diverse and tolerant society.

Four days ago I gave the final lecture of my introductory course in cultural anthropology during which I talked about immigration and cultural difference in American society. I ended the lecture with a discussion of Roger Sanjek's award-winning book, The Future of Us All, in which the author describes social and political life in the Elmhurst-Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, perhaps the most culturally diverse space in the US. In the book Sanjek describes how, against all odds, the Elmhurst-Corona community managed to function successfully despite the many jagged lines of race, ethnicity and language that cut across its social space. Considering unmistakable demographic trends in the US, it is clear that racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity will shape our future society. Diversity and difference is, indeed, "the future of us all."

So in an environment of terrorist threats, should we listen to likes of Trump and Cruz and fear the expansion of difference and diversity? Not at all. It is worth repeating again and again that the increasing presence of racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity will make our future a socially robust one. By the same token, it is worth repeating again and again that following the path of xenophobia and bigotry leads us to bleak future of decline and decay.

In today's world the stakes are high, the path is long and the challenge is great--time to dig in and continue the fight for science and reason.