Want to prevent lone wolf terrorism? Promote a ‘sense of belonging’

This September, as they start the school year, French children aged 14 years old and upwards are going to get lessons on how to deal with a terrorism attack on their school. Meanwhile, the debate over the ban on wearing burkinis and whether they are, in the words of France’s prime minister, “a political sign of religious proselytising” continues.

Encounters at an open day at a Paris mosque. Charles Platiau/Reuters

The big question, however is this: Why are we seeing a rash of these attacks in Europe and especially in France, and are such measures effective in countering them?

What have we learned from the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the murder of 130 people in and around Paris last November, the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice and the killing of an 85-year-old priest inside of a church in Normandy?

Examining the reactions of French authorities, we can conclude there are only limited actions that can be taken to prevent such atrocities.

Security can been heightened by extending the state of emergency that it declared last November. Intelligence efforts can be redoubled. Such efforts are raising concern about civil liberties being curtailed. But the Nice attack is also a dire warning that these measures aren’t effective as a means of protecting citizens from continued attacks.

Police guard the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where Father Jacques Hamel was killed. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The point is that none of the above policies could have prevented Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel and Abdelmalik Petitjean from carrying out their violent actions. Thousands if not millions of people living in Europe have similar profiles. Tunisian or Algerian descent and French citizenship are not enough to tip off authorities that a person could run over 84 people with a truck or slit the throat of a priest.

So how can we hope to prevent future attacks? We need to change our focus, in my opinion, to examining these perpetrators' “sense of belonging” rather than looking for reasons to detain or expel them because they don’t belong.

A Canadian case study

A number of years ago, while working at the National Institute for Scientific Research in Montréal, I was invited to join a research team studying the integration of refugees and immigrants into Québec society.

This led me to work on research projects that looked at a broad range of questions – from why people claim refugee status to how immigrants use storytelling to talk about their displacement and assimilation into Canada.

A scene from a play by Lebanese Canadian writer Wajdi Moawad. Nicolas M. Perrault, CC BY

My first project was focused upon immigrant literary works – especially novels and short stories – that were a largely untapped source of information to help officials understand the complex process of integrating into Quebec society, and in particular, as a way to understand relationships between immigrants and individuals from the host country.

There’s a pretty large body of so-called immigrant literature in Québec. Interestingly, many of these narratives include graphic and sometimes even pornographic descriptions of encounters between native-born and immigrant protagonists.
A broad reading of these stories made me realize that developing relationships with friends and lovers contributed to the migrant’s “sense of belonging.” They helped him or her to forget their country of origin and forge a new beginning in the host society.

In fact, I came to believe that these immigrants' ability to adapt had something to do with the very process of exchange. Or, put another way, the many acts of giving and receiving that they committed each day helped them to feel connected to society.

Measuring belonging

In order to evaluate this process of adaptation, I turned to work by French biblical scholars called the Groupe d'Entrevernes, which focuses upon how narratives “make sense”: that is, how a story creates meaning in the context of the text, but also in regards to the world to which it refers.

This approach focuses on looking for meaning by analyzing particular actions, notably “who does what to whom where.” So in the case of immigrant literature, a group of us looked in minute detail at the complex interactions between characters, with special focus upon how relationships begin and end, and what is gained in the process. We also assessed characters' attitudes prior to and after each interaction, with an eye to understanding the effect of the exchange.

Our goal was to assess which specific actions help foster a sense of belonging, in a new country and which alienate the character from his or her society.

The signing of a lease, the acquisition of immigrant status (whether a work visa or a green card) or being hired for a job all foster a sense of belonging. Being kicked out of an apartment, divorced or deported are all examples of loss of belonging.

Implications for policymakers

The advantage of research like this for a case like Nice is that it forces the investigator to examine all of the concrete details of the perpetrators' lives leading up to the horrific event, rather than just focusing upon the act of violence.
It’s not sufficient to know that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel had a violent relationship with his wife, or that Abdelmalik Petitjean visited Turkey just prior to entering a church in Normandy.

What’s more important is to understand what they wanted for themselves in the longer term. As difficult as it now seems in light of their murderous actions, we would gain a lot by undertaking meticulous investigations into these individuals’ sense that they didn’t belong in France, and that they had to destroy what it represents.

By creating concrete conditions for different communities to feel they belong, policymakers can help their diverse populations feel connected to, and thus protective of, their societies.

Many of the analyses of recent terrorist events have focused upon the “lone-wolf” quality of the perpetrators. These lone wolves are difficult to predict, because they are acting independently, and without any contact with extremist organizations or individuals.

The work of policymakers, then, is to figure out how to prevent these individuals from acting impulsively, on the basis of some unpredictable trigger. My sense is that the only way to do this is to build a sense of belonging that will prevent them from feeling destructive. If they feel alienated from their society and feel they don’t belong there, then they can also feel that other people deserve to suffer or die.

Following the logic of this approach, we can try to figure out which actions serve to reinforce belonging and which hinder it and then develop policies that build on the positive rather than the purely negative.

Our research in Quebec indicated that most of these actions are quite simple and achievable. They range from providing federal funds for ethnic celebrations and translations for pamphlets about available social services to encouraging local tolerance for so-called “foreign” customs such as the wearing of burkinis (something that has not happened in France) or Sikh turbans. In the Quebec example, our reading of the literature also indicated that undue bureaucratic wrangling that hinders the process of procuring basic necessities, like a driver’s license, or that made access to social services such as health care or daycare difficult, can become sources of frustration and alienation.

At the same time, it is crucial to explain which of these customs can lead to severe punishment in the host country. Such actions as Latin Americans shooting off guns during parties or immigrants from Africa and the Middle East sending children abroad for female genital mutilation can become grounds for serous punishments.

Most importantly, our research suggested that successful integration generally occurs through individual incentive and personal relationships, fostered, whenever possible, by the community or the government. The 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act formalized a policy to encourage multicultural diversity and develop a sense of tolerance through recognition and understanding. One result of our own research was to help contribute to a higher profile for the Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities and to support their championing of diversity and inclusion.

A minute of silence July 18 in Nice. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

I may have traveled to Nice this summer with my family in order to celebrate Bastille Day, because it’s a beautiful setting, a city where we dream of the passion, luxury and the sultry pleasures of the French Riviera. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel may have decided to target those same celebrations for exactly the same reasons, because while we might feel like sharing in that sense of belonging, he most certainly didn’t.

Robert F. Barsky is Professor of English and French Literatures, and Professor of Law , Vanderbilt University

This article was first published on The Conversation



Related Articles