Among those who make it their business to study and to write about terrorism, there is a palpable sense of exhilaration when some group or individual carries out an act of terrorism. None of them, of course, would admit to harbouring any such emotion: it would look cruel and callous. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, for many professional terrorism observers, terrorism, at some deep level, is what they really want to happen. Of course they do: if terrorism stopped, they’d be out of business.
Actually, for some, it isn’t all that deep. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, for example, wasted little time in seizing on Saturday’s massacre in Buffalo to showcase her professional acumen and expertise. Miller-Idriss is the director of the Polarisation and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University in Washington (D.C.). Since the attack, she has been tweeting incessantly about her work on far-Right extremism. In one tweet she bragged about how in demand she was: “Fielding so many requests to explain the ‘great replacement’,” she said. In another tweet, she tried experimenting with a tone of pained bashfulness: “Stay tuned for more from me, from @PERIL_AU, as long as we & this expertise remain relevant, which I hope against hope is not long.”
Another north American-based educator called Tedra Osell, who describes herself online as “Teacher, writer, cat lady”, sought to use the Buffalo shooting as a launch-pad to hawk around a theory about how the far-Right is radicalising white kids on gaming platforms:
Osell offered zero evidence for her many spectacular claims and hectoring commands (“You NEED to be countering the messages he is getting. He is hearing white nationalist and fascist shit daily.”), and the whole thread seemed to be a pastiche of another extensive Twitter-thread by another white mother in response to another far-Right terrorist attack. ‘Do you have white teenage sons?,’ Joanna Schroeder tweeted in August 2019 . ‘Listen up. I’ve been watching my boys’ online behavior & noticed that social media and vloggers are actively laying groundwork in white teens to turn them into alt-right/white supremacists.’ Miller-Idriss, who has written about echo-chambers, retweeted Osell’s tedious thread.
But the gold medal for the most coldly opportunistic response to the Buffalo massacre must surely go to Vidhya Ramalingam, founder and CEO of a data analytics company called Moonshot. On the day after the massacre, she tweeted: ‘If this administration truly wants to stop horrific attacks like this, it needs to truly invest in prevention. Not $20M, not $80M, but far more.’
Miller-Idriss, you will be astonished to learn, heartily agreed with Ramalingam, complaining that ‘US investment in prevention is literally a drop in the bucket…’ It’s almost as if Ramalingam and Miller-Idriss might actually stand to professionally benefit from more domestic terrorism in America.
The first thing to say about Ramalingam’s claim is that there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up: not only do we not know how to effectively prevent terrorism, but there is still a vast amount that we still don’t know about how and why people become terrorists in the first place. Indeed, terrorism scholars are sharply divided on what explains the turn from radicalisation to actual violence. (Marc Sageman has written widely about this puzzle.) We know even less about what interventions work to stop people from committing terrorism or to reform convicted terrorists.
The second thing to register is the jaw-dropping brazenness of Ramalingam’s tweet: she might just as well have said that if the Biden administration wants to stop domestic terrorism they should immediately give Moonshot copious amounts of money. In 2021 the company received $7 million funding from various benefactors. One of Moonshot’s signature digital tools is the ‘redirect method’, which uses, according to one of the company’s documents, ‘targeted advertising to connect people searching the internet for violent extremist content with constructive alternative messages’. Unfortunately for Moonshot, there is no solid evidence that this digital tool has prevented anyone from becoming a terrorist.
The term ‘ambulance chaser’ conventionally refers to a lawyer soliciting for clients at a disaster site. It also applies to war correspondents who ruthlessly seek out the most gut-wrenching stories, knowing that such war-porn will command attention and morbid curiosity. (“Anyone here been raped and speaks English,” used to be the unofficial motto of Britain’s foreign press corps.) And it assuredly applies to many extremism researchers, who respond to every terrorism attack with a mixture of faux moral outrage and unabashed hucksterism. But at least ambulance chasing lawyers and war correspondents show a modicum of self-awareness about their respective enterprises.