Countering the violent extremists among us

A man reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 29, 2018.   REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton - RC1530DEE0B0
Editor's note:

What America needs now, just as it did after 9/11, is to rally around a common purpose, writes Hady Amr. We need a political leadership that wholeheartedly espouses unity at home, and a government re-focused on fighting hatred and the roots of extremism. This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

This weekend, as I struggled to explain to my young children that there are terrorists living among us who murder people because of how they pray, I felt tugged back to the profound anguish I felt after 9/11.

Why? Certainly the scale of recent attacks has been nowhere near the thousands that perished on that singularly horrific September day in 2001; a day that changed the course of American history. So on that front, there’s zero comparison.

I feel the thrust back to 9/11 because, after the dust settled that day, the question on Americans’ lips was: “Why do they hate us?” Today, I am asking myself the same question: “Why do they hate us?”

Back then, the “us” was easy to identify. The “us” were Americans. It was the idea and institutions of America that were attacked on that fateful day. “They” were the 9/11 terrorists, Osama Bin Laden and those who inspired them.

For some, “they” extended to Muslim communities and Muslim-majority countries around the world. Indeed, violent hate crimes against American Muslims spiked after 9/11.

But within a week of the attack, President Bush addressed the nation from a leading Washington mosque to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry, saying, “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam,” and, “Islam is peace.”

Sure, that didn’t solve things, but America’s conservative president pressed forward with the vision of an inclusive America at home, while he rightly went to war against al-Qaida overseas.

Today, things are more complex. Is the “us” under attack comprised of Americans? From mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats, to the slaughter of American Jews at prayer, to a man who murdered African-Americans at a grocery store after failing to break into an African-American church, it certainly seems that a foundational ideal of America is indeed under attack.

That foundational ideal is: “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”). It’s printed on the coins in our pockets and on the Great Seal of the United States. 

Even more complicated and painful is to attempt to answer the question of who the “they” is. That’s what brings me to shudder when I grapple with how to discuss this with my children: The “they” is also the “us.” Or at least it’s within us.

These murderers are effectively terrorists, and these terrorists are Americans. They are our neighbors. They are not some easily vilified foreign entity or individual. The killers are within us. They are of us. We can no longer avoid forcefully organizing ourselves to address this.

Admittedly, this isn’t something new. Organized hate has had a home in America for centuries. And we have institutions that track it and fight against it: units within the FBI and civil society groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Muslim Advocates.

What America needs now, just as it did after 9/11, is to rally around a common purpose. We need a political leadership that wholeheartedly espouses unity at home and unreservedly, loudly and consistently condemns racism and bigotry when rears its ugly head. We need a government re-focused on fighting hatred and the roots of extremism. And we need a civil society the pulls together to offer not just solidarity and comfort but also understanding among our fellow citizens.

At the moment, there are those whose words—inadvertently or otherwise—incite domestic extremists to violence, and there are those Americans who fervently believe in E Pluribus Unum. Let’s not just hope, but let’s also work together to ensure that the motto inscribed in the Great Seal of the United States emerges victorious.