In Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, McCauley seeks to explain how terrorists are led to action through mechanisms that are based on emotions and experiences that are common to all humans: love, fear, personal grievance, etc. He claims that Americans could be led through the very same psychological processes to radicalize and indeed, at the end of the work, one is shocked at his or her ability to understand terrorists. If the work is so easy to read and its explanations broach common sense, why does it take 248 pages to explain?
Terrorism is not actually something most of us are familiar with. For most Americans, their understanding of it is predicated on one event, one figurehead, and one non-state acting group.
Domestic terrorism, however, is something we are even less familiar with. Examples date back to abolitionists like John Brown, but these historic figures are not typically referred to as "terrorists" in AP US History textbooks or classes. The last recorded instance of domestic terrorism in America would be the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma State. Personally, I would have been 3 years old.
Mass murder, on the other hand, is something Americans are quite familiar with, especially given the rise and recency of school shootings: Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, and Sandy Hook in 2012. I was 18 when Senator Gabby Giffords and several of her constituents were shot in Tucson, AZ. I was 19 when viewers of the Dark Knight Rises were shot in Denver, CO. I was 20 when Sandy Hook Elementary school children and staffers were shot in Newton, CT. These instances are much more firm in my memory. All of them evade my understanding.
Watching the news at night, we are shown the faces of those behind these events: Jared Lee Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. We hear about the lack of humanity, the lack of remorse, and the lack of rage while they committed these acts or when they stand to trial. More important than the fact that they acted without apparent or disclosed reason, they acted with a lack of emotion: they must have been insane.
So, McCauley's alternative explanation for terrorists' acts beyond political motivations isn't instinctive. Our reluctance to identify with terrorists is because we - albeit fortunately - are not familiar with it. We are not used to hearing about American radicals committing violence with some sort of psychological explanation for their acts or rational end in mind. If we liken terrorists to ourselves at all, we liken them to mass murderers, radicals who are most often understood as insane. If an oppressive political structure or coercive regime in power is not the reason for acts of violence, then the actors behind them, to our best guesses, must also be insane.
McCauley's work explains well how this is not the case. If there is one criticism to be had, the book is wanting of examples of domestic terrorists that are seen as heroes today - not just humanitarians in Haiti - or examples of radicals who actually act violently in America for those reasons McCauley claims. In their absence, terrorism is still a "foreign" phenomenon. If modern examples are few, perhaps the reader is due a more cross-cultural explanation or historical analysis on why radicals in America express opinions and would incite violence, but frequently don't. These addendums may be unimportant to the very original point McCauley makes: radicalization is understandable. But it is important to what I think the book is meant to do. Once we better understand why we have a tough time likening terrorists to ourselves, we actually will change how we respond to them and appropriately capitalize on the mistakes of terrorists who anticipate the former enraged responses we will no longer grant. I hope to see McCauley step up to the task.