The chief suspect in the recent New York City terror attack, which left eight civilians dead and more injured, committed an act of unspeakable evil. Such indiscriminate murder shocks us all, and we rightfully feel a deep sense of resentment toward the attacker. Soon after the attacks, President Donald Trump took to Twitter, blasting the attacker as “a very sick and deranged person”; a few days later, he called the suspect an “animal”while speaking with reporters. Trump’s comments echo a common sentiment: that those who commit horrific acts cannot possibly be motivated by ideas, and that any ideologies they espouse are a mere cover for their fundamentally violent, animalistic nature.
Of course, some members of groups may be sadistic by nature, but the majority are not. Ignoring the critical role of ideology in violence lets us dismiss violence as something not possible in most people. We reason that attackers are unsalvageable, and that violence could never arise amongst the “normal” people of our own society. This flawed conception cripples our ability to oppose violent ideologies.
America’s response to Islamist terror demonstrates our ineffective attitude toward violence. Trump’s reaction to the recent attack is emblematic of a typical response to jihadi violence: decrying the attacker while failing to do anything about the ideas that motivated him. Both the right and the left are guilty of this. On the right, the response is often to strike back against the “animal,” whether militarily or with assertions of American might, neither of which do much to stop terrorism. Some on the left rush to emphasize how the attacker was not a “true Muslim” and was instead motivated by something else, generally implied to be a troubled life or a violent nature.
If we approach the problem of Islamist terror as one of broken, sadistic individuals, we will fail. Because most Americans cannot understand the appeal of violent jihadism, we assume that Islamist attackers must be hateful people who use an ideology to express their violent inclinations. We believe this falsehood at our own peril. The reality, of course, is that while a violent nature or bad experiences are often an exacerbating factor, most radical Islamists are in fact intensely ideological, motivated to sacrifice their lives for their deeply flawed interpretation of Islam.
Had they not been exposed to violent ideologies, many attackers might have lived ordinary lives as typical people. Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi war criminal, provides a classic example of this. Eichmann directed the logistics of the Holocaust, knowingly sending millions of innocent people to their deaths — he was truly, unquestionably evil. Yet as reporter Hannah Arendt famously observed at Eichmann’s 1962 trial, the Nazi criminal appeared very ordinary. Psychologists determined him to have a typical personality, with no apparent psychological issues. This apparently normal man directly contributed to the murder of millions of people in one of the greatest atrocities of all time. Eichmann’s evil was motivated not by any psychological dysfunction, but by a belief in the violent, hateful Nazi ideology.
As Eichmann’s case emphasized, evil acts are not necessarily the product of an evil nature. That conclusion may be terrifying — it shows that ordinary people, possessed of the wrong beliefs, can commit unfathomable acts of violence. That may be why, in the wake of this latest attack, we still revert to name-calling. By reasoning that no ordinary person could do such a thing, we emotionally separate ourselves from the “deranged” attacker. Sadly, we know that ordinary people can, and do, commit acts of terrible violence.
None of this is to excuse those who commit violence. Recognizing the influence of ideology on violence shifts blame squarely onto the attacker and his or her decisions. Still, we must face the deeply unsettling truth that many evil people are not inherently evil. Islamist terrorists truly believe that their violence is religiously sanctioned, and even many Nazis believed that their wretched violence was right. If we want to convince people to give up their evil ideas, we cannot dismiss those people as insane. Instead, we need to recognize that their beliefs, however abhorrent, are deeply held. Only once we understand where their beliefs come from can we understand how to effectively oppose them.