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American Born Fear

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We don't want the Boston Marathon bombers to be us. We don't claim them. They can't be Americans. As soon as suspects were identified, we rejected these young men. Even some of their family did. We call them Chechen or Russian or even Muslims as if those identities are more prominent than others.

We blame them because of our fear. We hope our geography protects us. If there could be a terrorist living next door in our suburban neighborhood, we open ourselves to becoming something else and terrorism is likely again.

More domestic terrorist events occurred in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s than the decade since 9/11, but do we have more fear now?

Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square Bomber, became a naturalized American citizen in 2009. His children were born in the U.S. and their mother is American. Shahzad moved to the U.S. in 1998 and earned both an undergraduate degree and an MBA from the University of Bridgeport. Was he not an American simply because he also committed terrorism? His face could have been the face of fear but his bomb did not go off.

Timothy McVeigh is as American as apple pie. He was born and raised in the state of New York. He was a decorated soldier in the first Gulf War. And then he built a bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people, including 19 children. Ibrahim Ahmad, a Jordanian American, was first blamed. It had to be foreign terrorists and not homegrown boys from the heartland.

In Jihad Joe, J.M. Berger detailed Americans that fight abroad in the name of Islam. One example is Omar Hammami, an Alabama-born Islamic extremist, who joined Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked insurgent group, Al Shabab. Hammami's fellow jihadis call him "the American." Do we claim Americans if they go abroad and commit terrorism?

A CBS News/NY Times poll taken 10 years after the 9/11 attack found that one in three Americans believe Muslim Americans are more sympathetic to terrorism than other Americans. A Public Religion Research Institute poll taken around the same time reported that 47 percent of Americans claimed that Islam and American values are incompatible. Forty-six percent report that they are uncomfortable with a Mosque being built near their home. We are afraid of terrorism and those individuals we link with the act. It is an American born fear, both rational and illogical. It is why a concerned citizen tackled a Saudi national, a victim himself, running from the Boston bomb.

Violence often happens at our moments of glory. It may happen again. Even with effort, resources, and intelligent people dedicated to countering extremism, we can't ever end terrorism. As Bruce Hoffman outlines in this book, Inside Terrorism, this form of violence can be traced throughout history from Biblical times to the Middle Ages to post WWII anti-colonial conflicts, even today. Sometimes it will come from people that look like McVeigh, and sometimes it will come from people that look like Shahzad.

The more we feed into the fear component of terrorism, the further we get from recovery. If we call the Boston Marathon bombers foreigners even though they've been living among us for a decade, then we feel safe once again.