As we struggle to comprehend the growing evil of the terrorist group ISIS, we need to look no further than our own neighborhood bullies to understand key weaknesses within ISIS’s tactics in order to thwart them.
Terrorists aren’t the only villains who use violent acts to create fear in part by targeting innocent, non-combatants. Bullies do so every school day in America, causing more than 160,000 children to stay home and motivate others to take their life. Bullies also wed power to fear and target innocent classmates, except bullies do so to gain social status as terrorists strive to usurp political power.
Both ISIS and schoolyard bullies endeavor to dominate a target’s psyche through addling fear, foreboding powerlessness, and threat of future cruelty. Both groups sneer at others with disdain and contempt, believing they are a kind of master race, destined to rule and superior to their targets who “deserve” to be treated with unspeakable cruelty.
Most of us have no opportunity to thwart terrorism. We rely upon our courageous men and women in uniform for that. But we can muster a more common courage to thwart terror from bullying in our schools
“Terrorism,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, “is not an act of war but of taunting,” and taunting is among a bully’s sharpest knives.
A taunt is a battle cry intended to demoralize another and make a target abandon self-defense, such as the late Alex Moore of Jemison, Ala., who in May, 2010 took her life in part due to taunts from classmates who called her “fat bitch,” among other slurs for more than two years.
A group of eight male bullies stalked a younger and smaller target in California for months. They made the ticking sound of a clock when he walked by, letting him know that as the ringleader told him, “You can run, faggot, but you can’t hide.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, through escalating their barbarism upon the innocent, wants the free world to feel the same dread, drop its guard and give up.
As terrorists are willing and able to kill the body, most serial bullies want to damage and even kill their target’s spirit. And just as terrorists rejoice in their brutal murders, some bullies rejoice in their evil deeds as well.
When the suicide of overweight Alex Moore was announced at her school, one of her most enthusiastic terrorizers proclaimed with swagger, “That fat bitch deserved to die!” In backwater parts of the world, being non-Muslim can be a fatal distinction. In backwater parts of America, so can being overweight.
Genocide is also a tool of terrorism, and “to begin to fathom genocide,” writes international bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, “the place to start is not with conflict but with bullying. Bullying is a conscious, willful, deliberate activity intended to harm, to induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and to create terror in the target.”
Though the battle plan to thwart ISIS and adolescent bullying differ, one important similarity must be heeded.
Martin Luther King said that evil carries within itself the seed of its own destruction. When it comes to terrorism and bullying, one of those seeds is an intoxicating hubris, which causes both groups to over-estimate their abilities.
Like schoolyard bullies, ISIS’s driving arrogance may have caused it to march into a self-made trap. By burning people alive, drowning others in cages and beheading many more and with such demonic theatrics, crucifying innocent children, burying children alive and selling others into sex slavery, it has moved the world from fear to indignation and anger, creating an unintended foundation of hope because as Augustine realized, "Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
President Obama’s comments this week about ISIS shows he has yet to demonstrate such needed anger, nor fully comprehend the sadism that electrifies a terrorist’s mind and perverts his soul. “Ideologies,” he said, “are not defeated with guns but with better ideas and more attracting and more compelling vision.”
This may be true when assessing conflict, misunderstanding, miscommunication and so on. But terrorists and bullies are not motivated by these conditions. They are motivated by disdain and contempt, which stem from a volatile mixture of supremacy and hatred. They glory in a form of evil that requires potent force, not “better ideas.”
Most of us have no opportunity to thwart terrorism. We rely upon our courageous men and women in uniform for that. But we can muster a more common courage to thwart terror from bullying in our schools, the leading form of child abuse in the nation and where millions of innocent children have their psychological skin seared from taunts, terror and threats of further abuse daily.
Evil isn’t just “over there.” It slithers each day through our playgrounds and classrooms. Anger toward it is easy. The hard part, as with ISIS, is wedding our anger to courage in order to thwart it.
Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is the Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying-Courage, Character & Leadership for Life, which provides a comprehensive and community-wide solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, faith-based organizations, and other places where bullying can be prevalent.