“The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists” is the title of a fascinating piece by Bruce Schneier. He reports on a study analyzing why terrorists tend to become…terrorists, and the study says it’s usually not for the political or religious reasons the we believe. Instead:

People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.

Here are some ways Schneier suggests we respond:

We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.

This article reminded me of another fascinating article I read years ago in The Atlantic, titled Gaza City, All you need is love: How the terrorists stopped terrorism. The story describes the way Yasir Arafat supposedly effectively stopped all the young men he recruited for his terrorist Black September group from committing more acts of terror after he signed the Oslo Peace Accords with Israel.

He helped them meet women to fall in love with and marry so they would have someone to live for:

as the general recounted, without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family. To make sure that none ever strayed, the two men devised a test. Periodically, the former terrorists would be handed legitimate passports and asked to go to the organization’s offices in Geneva or Paris or some other city on genuine nonviolent PLO business. But, the general explained, not one of them would agree to travel abroad, for fear of being arrested and losing all that they had—that is, being deprived of their wives and children. “And so,” my host told me, “that is how we shut down Black September and eliminated terrorism. It is the only successful case that I know of.”

So what can we teachers learn from these stories?

We may be wrong about why our students do the things they do, and we’re probably not going to get any change in behavior until we figure out what the real reasons are. And helping identify what they may want, and helping them get it, might provide a positive way to change — saying “yes” to something instead of saying “no.”

Here are a couple of instances from my own experience that come to my mind, and I hope others will contribute more:

When a student “acts out” in the classroom, let’s remember he or she may not be doing it just because he/she doesn’t like you or wants to get you irritated. There may be other reasons (needs adult attention, it’s the only way they can think of to get recognized by peers, etc.). When was the last time — if ever — you’ve had a conversation with him/her about how their lives are going? Or, perhaps they’ve used-up all their self-control, and it might need to get replenished.

When a student is just not “buying into” school at all, maybe it’s time to find something they will buy into. There’s an old community organizer’s saying that “Everyone is interested in something, it just may not be what you want them to be interested in.” I once had a student who just wouldn’t do anything in class. I asked him what he would want to study, and he said “Romeo and Juliet” (his girlfriend was doing that unit in another class). It was easy to quickly create a bunch of assignments for him to work on independently in class for a couple of weeks, he did great work, and he was on track for the rest of the year.

I don’t want to suggest that knowing the true reasons will always result in a positive solution. I do want to suggest that knowing the true reasons increases the likelihood of a positive and real solution

What do you think?