Detection and intervention work best when they originate not from external surveillance, but from people close to the troubled individuals. That’s especially true of self-radicalizers such as the Boston bombers, who appear to have taken their inspiration and instructions from the Internet. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was blessed with a strict, level-headed uncle who confronted the young man about his slide into extremism. Tsarnaev was also reined in by elders at his mosque who demanded that he cease his harsh and strident outbursts. But he was cursed with weak parents who blinded themselves to his derangement, embraced his conspiracy theories and ignored warnings about his radicalization, even from the FBI.
If you’re close to such a person, you have to intervene. You might be able to steer him away from danger just by talking to him. Or you might have to bring in law enforcement. These are judgment calls. We don’t want a surveillance society, but we do want a society in which people look out for one another. In the Canadian case, a Toronto man approached a local Muslim leader a few years ago. The man worried that his son, like Tsarnaev, was becoming intolerant and hostile in his faith. The Muslim leader asked to speak to the son, but the father never followed up. The son went on to become one of the Toronto plotters. He was stopped only when the imam, a different man, alerted the government.
If you’re not a Muslim, your job is to make it easier for people in that community to do their part. Don’t go around spouting that Muslims are terrorists, or that blacks are criminals, or that gays are promiscuous. Stop thinking of these communities as the problem, and start thinking of them as the solution. Do you think black parents like losing their kids to drug dealers? Do you think gays are happy about all the young men slain by HIV? Do you think Muslims want their sons brainwashed and turned into killers?
For every jihadist who wants war, there’s an imam who wants peace. For every Tamerlan Tsarnaev, there’s a Ruslan Tsarni. These good people can stop terrorism. You need their help. And they need yours.
William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.