Public opinion and domestic terrorism: What we can learn from Israel

Public opinion and domestic terrorism: What we can learn from Israel
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The U.S. government is starting to pay more serious attention to domestic extremism. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan acknowledged recently that domestic terrorism was becoming a priority “for the first time.”    

This is a much-needed change. Domestic terrorism — such as the mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, Pittsburgh and Orlando — bears similarities to international terrorism and to more conventional criminal matters. Domestic extremists are as resilient and adaptive as al Qaeda. Many law enforcement tactics used against criminals can be effective against domestic terrorists.

Domestic terrorism nonetheless presents unique challenges. Specifically, confronting domestic terrorism creates challenges related to popular perceptions and public opinion. Israel also faces both domestic and external terrorist threats. We hear a lot about Israel’s conflict with certain Arab groups, but Israel also has confronted violent Jewish extremists. In the 1990s, a Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and another massacred 29 Muslims. More recently, Jewish extremists have burned a family in the West Bank and committed scores of other attacks.

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What can the U.S. learn from Israel’s experience? The ongoing HBO series “Our Boys” examines Israel’s struggles with the specific political challenges of countering domestic extremists. 

The show dramatizes events surrounding the 2014 murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir. In the prior weeks, three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and later found murdered. The public reaction in Israel was heated, with thousands gathering for mass prayers and, after the bodies were discovered, extremists calling for payback. In that highly charged setting, Abu Khdeir’s murderers saw his killing as an act of revenge.

This set of events highlights three ways in which combating domestic terrorism presents distinct challenges, particularly in terms of public opinion. 

The first is the problem of rationalization. When outsiders attack, the threat fits neatly into an easily understood “us v. them” mindset. Government and media tend to portray the perpetrators as “bad guys” and the public generally accepts this narrative.

Not so when the threat is from within. When that happens, individuals seek other explanations, which some psychologists argue is a mechanism to overcome the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. After the Hebron massacre, some in Israel convinced themselves the perpetrator acted to preempt an attack against Jews. In the United States, rationalizations such as flaws in the mental health system or the influence of violent video games enter the public discourse after domestic extremist attacks.  

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A second challenge is the potential stigmatizing of law enforcement officials focused on domestic threats. When a country faces attacks from outsiders, those tasked with fighting internal threats are sometimes viewed as doing a less important job at best, and ostracized at worst, although it is likely also the case that many in our law enforcement community are eager for a stronger mandate to engage domestic extremists. 

In “Our Boys,” Simon, the fictional Israeli official tasked with monitoring Jewish extremists, pressures an informant to find out if anyone is planning a retaliation for the kidnappings. The informant is shocked that the conversation is even taking place. Simon and his team, he believes, waste resources on hypothetical threats while the rest of the country tries to find the kidnapped boys.

The scene is fictional, but this perception is real. When someone such as the El Paso shooter is portrayed as a pathetic figure, a member of an underclass leading “purposeless lives of anonymity and digital dependency,” we wonder what impact this characterization might have on the motivation, self-esteem and social standing of those tasked with fighting him, especially when less controversial and more prestigious external threats abound.

Finally, there’s the problem of misattribution. Abu Khdeir was murdered by lone wolves. Yet many Palestinians misperceived the murder as a sinister and especially shocking case of Israeli violence — if not directly organized by authorities, then at least encouraged by them. This is not surprising in the context of decades of conflict and mistrust. As our statistical analysis of data provided by the Israeli police shows, this misperception contributed to a tenfold spike in riots in Jerusalem. 

This is a common misperception. The government can state that it was not involved, but members of targeted groups may not believe this. The El Paso and Pittsburgh shooters were correctly perceived by the targeted communities as individual, unaffiliated actors, but many people still attributed some responsibility to the Trump administration. It can be especially difficult for the government to distance itself from domestic terrorists.   

Taking domestic terrorism in the United States more seriously is long overdue. Law enforcement institutions, both in Israel and the U.S., are not equipped to take these public opinion considerations into account, and we hope the ongoing efforts within the government begin to consider how best to do so. It certainly would be helpful if our elected officials refrained from inflammatory rhetoric against certain groups. 

In the meantime, however, there is much the media and we, as a public, can do to address these challenges. We must change how we talk about these attacks. Attributing individual actions to broader groups is common and, some believe, deeply embedded in human psychology. But we can mitigate this by de-emphasizing the attacker’s ethnic or religious identity. Also, the El Paso and Orlando attackers are either both “shooters” or both “terrorists.” We should choose the right words and stick to them, regardless of the perpetrator’s identity.  

Finally, if we seek answers as to why our culture leads some white men to commit attacks, we must equally focus on why some minorities and even Islamists turn to such desperate acts. 

Such changes in our public discourse would help in several ways — by bringing the needed moral clarity and curbing rationalizations; by preventing the stigmatization of law enforcement; and by sending a powerful message to targeted communities that the government is firmly on their side. Law enforcement alone cannot address all the challenges of violent domestic extremism. As a society, we can help by choosing our words carefully.

Eugene Finkel is an associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of “Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.” 

Yonatan Lupu is associate professor of political science at George Washington University. His areas of expertise include human rights, political violence, international law and institutions.