When everyone began trying to understand the waves of Arab violence and terror hitting Israel, all sorts of explanations were proposed.
Personally, I’m sticking with simple bloodlust, as I’ve pointed out before.
Yes, there is the Islamic and Arab cultural baggage that fuels their fervor, but it’s always been bloodlust that sends them over the edge, moving from slogans to concrete actions.
But the other question is, what ignites this Sudden Jihad Syndrome, where repeatedly, a middle-class Arab from Jerusalem or other Israeli cities, wakes up and decides to stab a Jew or run him or her over?
I’m pointing out that the terrorists are middle-class Arabs for a reason.
The Arab scholar Bassam Tawil began looking into the family lives of these terrorists. He visited their homes and discovered that they didn’t live in poverty, they weren’t uneducated people, they weren’t jobless.
In Tawil’s words, they were “leading comfortable lives, with unlimited access to education and work.” They were from normative, middle class Arab homes.
Most were educated, popular, good-looking, had jobs, and their families are stable and financially secure members of their communities.
So what drives a normal, middle-class Arab young man or woman to suddenly wake up, take a knife out of his mother’s kitchen and get in his car to go kill Jews?
Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” has been on my mind for a while now (I don’t have a copy in front of me, someone borrowed it and didn’t return it). Gladwell talks about “epidemics” and what makes them happen – what is the impetus that “jolts” a stable situation out of equilibrium – in our case, a low level of violence, to almost daily stabbings and vehicular attacks by a particular kind of person, who might otherwise sit next to you on the bus or light rail on the way to work, or serve you in the store or restaurant you frequent.
What triggered my memory is a story Gladwell tells in his book of a suicide epidemic that hit Micronesia, also known as the Werther effect. It is a spike and cluster of suicides in a community that follow a well-publicized suicide.
Wikipedia describe it as:
The Werther effect not only predicts an increase in suicide, but the majority of the suicides will take place in the same or a similar way as the one publicized. The more similar the person in the publicized suicide is to the people exposed to the information about it, the more likely the age group or demographic is to die by suicide. The increase generally happens only in areas where the suicide story was highly publicized. Upon learning of someone else’s suicide, many people decide that action is appropriate for them as well, especially if the publicized suicide was of someone in a similar situation as them.
There’s another similar epidemic, now called the Columbine effect, where the killers idealize the original massacre, try to duplicate it, and more so, try to improve upon it to reach it’s idealized form as they imagine it.
I can’t imagine a more fitting description for what we are facing in Israel.
An Arab runs some Jews over, gets out of the car and then tries to stab the Jews, the Arab terrorist is then shot and killed, or alternatively, an Arab takes his mother’s knife, walks around, stabs a Jew, the terrorist is then shot and killed. The story gets elaborated on, that the Jews planted the knife, or the breaks failed. The video/photo/story is then posted to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Attack. Kill. Post. Watch. Repeat.
One of the proposed solutions in communities where these suicide epidemics hit, is for the local media to stop reporting the incidents, and that helps end the epidemic. Of course, in the age of social media, that’s damn near impossible, so the situation just feeds on itself, until some other factor changes, and it peters out.
Gladwell discusses three possible areas of change: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
The Law of the Few: These are the trend-setters that first start an idea and the social connectors who get the idea out to their wider group of friends and followers.
The Stickiness Factor: This is the slogan. A contagious message connected to the act that keeps the act in mind. It could be some minor tweak to a well-worn message that suddenly gives it impact and for some reason turns it into an earworm that won’t get out of your head.
The Power of Context: This is what you see around you. People act and react based on the physical and social environmental cues around them. Our current situation fits this formula (and the previous waves fit similar formulas).
The Arabs see cool, middle-class Arabs suddenly getting up and killing a Jew using one of two easy methods, the youth gets killed, it gets posted on the internet by key social media connectors, and then widely distributed and watched – the Law of the Few.
The Arabs link the attacks to a slogan – in this wave’s case, the Jews are changing the status quo (which every time Netanyahu says that he isn’t, but uses those words, he triggers them even more). A second message has also developed which is “the Jews planted the knife” – The Stickiness Factor.
And finally, the Arab community hears repeatedly from their imams and in their mosques, on social media and at home, how the Jews are executing innocent Arabs and planting knives near their bodies, and they must defend Al Aqsa which the Jews are destroying. The returned bodies get a hero’s funerals. Other terrorists get streets and schools named after them by the PA government, and their jailed terrorists get healthy salaries. Those are the constant environmental cues around them, telling them that Arabs must take action against the Jews, and it’s OK and even heroic to do so – the Power of Context.
These three rules defining what pushes an act over the tipping point, turning it into an epidemic, can perhaps also provide clues on how to end the epidemic.
The Law of the Few: We have four “guilty parties” in this case, the people videoing the events, the people posting the videos to the “right” groups and pages, the social media platforms and the newspapers. You can’t have newspapers not report the latest terrorist attack, but perhaps they could be less gruesome about their reporting. Similarly, the popular social media platforms and video sharing platforms could be told to block and remove the videos. But alternative social-sharing platforms will just pop-up or become popular, if the current ones start restricting usage.
One could go after the people making and posting the videos, but again, it’s a widespread phenomena.
So we may be stuck with limited ability to affect this rule, but it’s worth looking into, nonetheless.
The Stickiness Factor: The message is the message. Proving it false clearly doesn’t work, and in fact even antagonizes them more, perhaps due to the cognitive dissonance it evinces.
We may be stuck with no ability to change their message, and the best move is to not even discuss it, or try to react to it – Netanyahu should not have even talked about the status quo or the Temple Mount.
The Power of Context: The environment is something we actually can change and affect.
If no terrorist bodies are returned, they can’t hold public celebrations.
If imams are inciting hatred and publicly repeating the message then isolate and arrest them.
If the messages are being transferred through social media and video sharing platforms, then identify those audiences most likely to be affected and temporarily shut down access, ranging from WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube, to internet and cellular access in specific neighborhoods and phones until things calm down.
When Israel put up the temporary wall in Jeruslaem and threatened to revoke residency rights from the terrorists and their families, that changed the environment, and caused those who understood what that meant for their lives to influence and control those family members more susceptible to the terror meme.
Israel disrupted the environment.
Israel non-violently forced the families to change the conversation. They still hate Jews, and they aren’t any less scared of dying, but the conversation now also says there’s too high a price to pay for heroically acting on the terror, and the rest of the family would suffer unacceptably.
A comparable price tag can be found for the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, which would similarly disrupt the conversational environment that provides positive context for the attacks.
We’re facing an epidemic of terror.
But now that we understand it, we have the tools to control it and keep it in check, if we’re prepared to use them.