The use of vehicles as weapons to kill civilians has sparked global fear and attention. Such attacks can be carried out in any populated area, against any random group of people, by anyone with or without connections to a network of ideologues promoting fear, hatred and terror.
We do not need experts to tell us that it is almost impossible to prevent such attacks. Two notable attacks in the US were those by James A. Fields Jr., who rammed his car into a crowd of nonviolent protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia killing one and injuring 19, and by Sayfullo Saipov who deliberately drove a truck down a bike path killing eight and injuring at least 11. They acted on behalf of an exclusively “white America,” and the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate across the Middle East, respectively. A crucial, immediate and long-term response is to separate the ideology of hate from those people and beliefs the attackers claim to represent.
Those who commit such acts never represent the majority of the people they claim to champion. Fields did not represent the 241 million white people in the United States, just like Saipov did not represent the approximately 400 million Muslims in the Middle East or the 33 million Uzbeks of his native country. Nevertheless, baseless blanket accusations pitch “us” vs “them,” with “the other” being a group to be feared, hated, and destroyed. This response is used by designated terrorist group leaders and our own government officials alike.
Social relations are far more fluid than the “us/them” propaganda suggests. Peace scholar John Paul Lederach invites us to look at a spectrum where we have organizations and individuals who actively promote and pursue terror and violence on one end, and those who have absolutely no connection on the other end. The broad center of the spectrum is made up by those who have some connection—wanted or unwanted—through a shared common (religious) background, extended family links, geography, race or other factors. Passivity, silence, and neutrality on that spectrum is not helpful. Broad condemnation and unity by those who the attackers claim to represent takes away their claim of acting for a greater good. Just like New York City’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism John Miller clearly stated that Islam had no role in the attack by Saipov, the fact that diverse groups denounced and protested white supremacy in Charlottesville, helped isolate both attackers and their ideology. The “us” becomes a clear majority of those taking a side against violence in the name of an ideology. The “them” now are isolated violent actors without legitimate support, the latter being a key ingredient for recruiting members, safety, and resources.
The gut response when innocents are killed is to do something. In the case of the New York attack, calling the attacker a “degenerate animal,” calling for fear-based immigration policies, and increasing military attacks in a country halfway across the globe—all tweeted responses by President Trump—are worse than useless.
If we can learn anything from vehicle attacks on civilians, it is that the militarized war on terror is as helpful as banning cars. The militarized war on terror is not winnable by design. Increasing military responses sends a signal that the vehicle attacks are working as tactics by a militarily inferior party. Research shows that military action is often an ineffective and even counterproductive tool for countering terrorism. The grievances and narratives employed by terrorist groups are fed by military action—new recruits fall into their arms. The only feasible way is to address the root causes.
Not surprisingly, some root causes for white nationalist-and ISIS-inspired attacks are similar—perceived or real marginalization, alienation, deprivation, and unequal power relations. Admittedly, these causes require more profound societal transformations. While hard, the numerous rights movements –human, civil, women, LGBT, religious, etc.—demonstrate that we can build on those even in challenging times.
And how do we deal with terror groups in the meantime? First, the stated and actual path toward addressing the root causes already takes away incentives and legitimate support for any form of terror. Second, ISIS can be countered directly by initiating arms and ammunitions embargoes to the Middle East, support for Syrian civil society, pursuit of meaningful diplomacy with all actors, economic sanctions on ISIS and supporters, withdrawal of US troops from the region, and the support of nonviolent civil resistance. Creative nonviolence is also one of the best ways to directly counter public acts of white supremacy. When white supremacists march, they can outnumbered, they can be mocked, and they can be made friends and changed. Daryl Davis, a black musician, asked many clansmen “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” He got 200 KKK members to leave the Klan.
There is no magic solution to eradicate the discussed forms of terror. There are, however, many ways we can respond to vehicles being used as weapons that make such incidents less likely in the future. If we don’t use these alternatives, it is not because they are not available, but because of artificially imposed constraints, lack of interest, or self-interest. The broad social spectrum gives us ample opportunity in our respective contexts to take the contested area away from the terrorists and dissolve any hateful ideology at its roots.