The Myth of the 'Homegrown Terrorist'

We are guided by myths more often than by reason.  Nothing new there;  man is a myth-making animal.  Myths spring up from our collective unconscious, they cover the globe, and they shape our thoughts and actions.  The great philosophers and the great psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts tried hard to “free us” from myths so that we could properly understand our world and ourselves.  Spinoza thought that emotions were the result of unclear ideas (I don’t agree, and neither does Barbara, the very clear object of my strongest emotions, but I digress).


Good news:  the doctor is in, and he’s going to help you.  He’s more modest about his abilities than the great thinkers and healers, so he’s just going to help you understand our world.  As for understanding yourself, well,  maybe Obamacare will pay for it.

The Myth of the Day is:  the “homegrown terrorist.”  Sometimes he or she’s called “self-made,” but it all comes to the same thing.  The idea is that there are normal Americans who, on their own, and certainly without any input from foreign countries or terrorist groups, up and become terrorists.

Such persons exist — from the Unabomber to those who have slaughtered innocents in our schools or movie theaters — but they are not the sorts that I’m talking about, the sorts the myth commonly refers to.  The myth and the phrase are typically applied to actual or would-be killers who are motivated by strong ideological or religious beliefs.  Most of the time, the myth is used to suggest that the bad guys in question don’t have any links to our foreign enemies.  They’re just Americans gone bad.

Ask yourself the obvious question:  how did they go bad?  From JFK’s assassin to the Fort Hood killer, most of them found meaning in life in violent ideologies that turned them against their countrymen and, profoundly, took them away from home.

Foreign ideologies.  Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist, Nidal Hasan was a radical Muslim.  Both killed Americans in America, after coming to identify with doctrines that were anything but homegrown.  Moreover, in recent years, establishing contact with foreign forces has become a piece of cake.  We do it online, we don’t have to travel overseas to get our indoctrination (although, as if to prove the point, a considerable number of them do).  Even when it “happens here,” the indoctrination more often than not takes place at the feet of foreign teachers and trainers.  Take the radical mosques, for example.  Most of them are funded with Saudi money, their texts come from the Saudi Kingdom, and their imams are trained by radical Saudi Wahhabis.


It does violence to the English language to call such avid followers of foreign leaders and foreign doctrines “homegrown terrorists.”  They may have lived here, they may even have been born here, but at a certain point they became alienated and turned to non-American visions and visionaries.

The inner turmoil of such terrorists has been well described by the famous writer V.S. Naipaul:

Everyone who is not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert.  Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or belief.  It makes imperial demands.  A convert’s worldview alters.  His holy places are in Arab lands;  his sacred language is Arabic.  His idea of history alters.  He rejects his own;  he becomes…a part of the Arab story….People develop fantasies about who and what they are;  and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism.  These countries are easily set on the boil.

Those people are boiling, too, perhaps more so in a non-Muslim land like ours than in countries that have gone over to Islam.  The same intense inner strife applies to those who join other totalitarian mass movements, whether Nazi, fascist, or Communist.

They are not homegrown.  They are converts, and they have taken leave of us to join our enemies.

The people to whom the usual meaning of “homegrown terrorist” can be accurately applied are the nativist right-wingers like the Aryan Nation.  But they are not the folks about whom the myth is commonly used.


There, doesn’t that feel better?  Your 50 minutes are up.  We accept credit cards and Blue Cross.

Coming Soon:  The Myth of the Threat of War.


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