“A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize,” wrote C. West Churchman in a 1967 editorial.
Since then, the term “wicked problem” has been used to describe an array of social and environmental problems that cannot be solved with a one-shot, fix-all. From climate change to poverty; clean water availability to air pollution — planet earth is bedeviled by a great number of truly wicked problems.
Sadly, yesterday’s ISIS inspired attack in London, which left four innocents and a deranged murderer dead, is a tragic reminder global terrorism now joins environmental degradation as a definitively wicked problem.
There is no one vaccine, or single inoculation shot that can either forewarn or prevent the kind of low-scale terrorist attack that took place outside of Britain’s parliament on Tuesday. No intelligence or counterterrorism agency has the power or capability to prevent a radicalized lunatic launching his car into unsuspecting pedestrians — in the same way no law enforcement agency has the capability to prevent an act of domestic violence.
Simply, terrorism and violent extremism are the symptoms of far too many uncontrollable social diseases. But this reality does little to discourage Muslim hating political entrepreneurs from pinning the blame on Islam — a ruse that finds a receptive audience from those who desperately seek the impossible one-shot solution to problem that is “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.”
If you were to somehow make Islam vanish into thin air, you’d still be left with ISIS propaganda or even Anwar al-Awlaki YouTube videos — both of which make little or zero appeals to Islam, and much to actual injustices carried out by the West and Western backed despots in the Middle East. If were to somehow put an end to Western imperialism and brutal Arab dictatorships, you’d still be left with the socio-economic conditions that create “hotbeds” of violent extremism. If you were somehow able to put an end to the socio-economic conditions — such as high unemployment rates, demographic youth bulges, and human insecurity — you’d still be left with the kind of climate catastrophes that fueled the genocide in Darfur, and the civil war in Syria. From these conflicts and conditions, extremists emerge.
And then there’s the homegrown terrorist — like Khalid Masood, who carried out the London attack, and who was born Adrian Russell Ajao. His journey from common street criminal to sudden Muslim convert to wannabe ISIS jihadist mirrors that undertaken by the Paris and Charlie Hebdo attackers. It’s a familiar story that tracks marginalization, racism, criminal careerism, and a stint in prison that puts the convict in touch with a charismatic ISIS recruiter. This crime-terrorism nexus is one that has attracted much attention among terrorism academics.
Now — if you believe a semi-annual, low-scale terrorist attack in Europe is intolerable today, then you have little comprehension for what lurks around the corner. Globalization means no country exists as an island. We are all interconnected by modern means of transport and communication. What happens in Africa, for instance, cannot be confined to Africa. In other words, their problems are now our problems, and our problems are now theirs. So unless you’ve figured out a way to wind the clock back to the days of the sail ship and the telegram, instead of the jet plane and the smart phone, you better get used to the idea of socio-economic-political-environmental interdependence.
Put another way, a school bombed by US fighter jets in Syria is temporally and spatially located next door to a knife and car attack on a London bridge. Put another way, former US secretary of state John Kerry crystal-balled the future when he remarked, “You think migration is a challenge in Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.”
In a broader sense, Kerry was making the point that the sudden influx of one million refugees into Europe has torn away at social bonds, and radicalized those who occupy the far right into violent extremism, so imagine what happens when one million refugees turns into 10 million, 20 or 30 million. These are all realities that are not going away. These are realities that are here to stay. Climate fuelled wars will make sure of it.
I wish comfort could be garnered in the knowledge the self-declared Islamic State finds itself hanging onto its own survival by its filthy fingertips. ISIS is on the brink of losing its Iraqi capital Mosul, and its Syrian capital Raqqa will likely fall soon thereafter. As sagely predicted by terrorism experts Amarnath Amarasingam and Colin Clarke, those who’ve aligned with ISIS will merely melt away into something equally or more vicious when the Caliphate falls, which further underscores the wickedness of this wicked problem.
Ultimately, we must accept these realities as our new normal. Accepting the London attack as such actually goes a long way to defeating this wicked problem. Whereas treating these attacks in terms of unspeakable or unimaginable horror serves only to ignite public panic, which, in turn, serves only to promote the terrorist’s agenda by empowering those who stand to gain politically by demonizing Muslims, which, in turn, leads to counter-productive counterterrorism policy and an erosion of our most critical weapons against the terrorists: social cohesion and resilience.
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From personal interviews, I have published stories on aid workers trapped in the Syrian conflict; tortured Guantanamo Bay detainees; civilians who have been targeted by Israeli settlers and occupation forces; former jihadists; those falsely accused of terrorism; and more.
From travels, observations, and research I have published stories on misguided US foreign policy in the Middle East; Israel’s war crimes; misguided counter radicalisation programs that unfairly target Muslim communities; and the latest academic research into transnational terrorist groups.
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My published books include The New Atheist Threat: the Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, and Crucifying America: the Unholy Alliance Between Wall Street and the Christian Right.
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