The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have sparked a war of words over the role of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims in the United States. The call from presidential candidates to shut the border, ban refugees, and actively patrol Muslim communities shows how horrific events half a world away have unsettled America.
But addressing the threats of terrorism requires thoughtful policies tailored to the specific country in question. While the United States should stand strong with its European allies to counter terrorism and defeat the Islamic State, it must also remember that it has large differences from Europe. These differences mean that the United States faces unique challenges and therefore should have unique solutions. Here are five reasons why the United States is not like Europe when it comes to terrorism, and how this affects policy
1. The United States is better at integrating immigrants, including Muslim immigrants: This may seem somewhat counterintuitive given the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign, and the strict U.S. immigration policies the United States, but immigrants integrate better into the U.S. than Europe. There are a host of possible explanations, including different views on religion. The United States has a much less unionized and regulated labor force than much of Europe, which speeds immigrants’ economic success. Muslim immigrants, in particular, integrate better in the United States than they do Europe. In many ways, Muslim Americans are even more tolerant and less prone to violence than other Americans.
2. The United States does not have the same cultural clashes that Europe does: The United States is very patriotic, but does not have the same underlying cultural ethos that European nations do. This means that people with an ‘outsider’ culture can engage easier with civil society and institutions in the United States than they can in Europe. This is also true in education and the workforce. Being American can be reworked to mean almost any cultural norm, as long as it is patriotic to the United States. That is not true everywhere.
The United States also has a longer history of using religion as a positive part of the integration process; religious organizations in the United States often help provide refuge, respectability, and resources to newcomers. On the other hand, Europe’s long suspicion of Islam and its ‘erosion’ of cultural values may have helped alienate the secluded communities involved in the current violence.
3. American immigrant communities are less secluded than European ones: Europe has ‘pockets’ of immigrants that are more secluded from wider society than American immigrants. Muslim immigrants in particular are much more widely dispersed across the United States than they are in Europe. Over time, this means better integration with the population.
The United States also faces a wider national spread of Muslim immigration. Muslims in America, for example, originate from 77 different countries with no major single group. In France, on the other hand, the main group of Muslims are Algerian. Newcomers to the United States have to engage with other groups, peoples, and cultures. In Europe, it is easier to congregate into an outside group, exacerbating existing cultural tensions.
4. The United States has a stronger law enforcement system than Europe: Law enforcement agencies in European countries are not known for working well with each other, something that is a problem for a region with easy internal travel. Belgian officials questioned some of the Paris attackers before the attacks, but that information was not shared with France. Belgium in particular is concerning, due to its weak federal system and a lack of communication among its own security agencies. This allows terrorists to exploit the Schengen agreement though the region’s weakest link.
The United States, in comparison, has focused on information sharing since September 11, 2001. It can share domestic information among law enforcement agencies in a more efficient way than Europe’s disjointed arrangement. Terrorist attacks are still possible, especially lone wolf attacks, but large-scale organized attacks are harder to accomplish in the United States.
5. The United States can be much more selective in accepting immigrants: The Paris attacks were committed by Belgian nationals and European residents, but the integration and social dynamic of immigration is an important part of this conversation. Since the attacks in Europe, the conversation has turned towards limiting immigration from places that have a high risk of producing terrorists. The United States, however, has a much greater ability to select who gets to enter the country than Europe. Particularly when it comes to refugees, the process is long and arduous. While there are security risks that could be addressed, the geography of the United States gives it more leeway in addressing these risks. Europe’s location opens it up to much easier access by terrorist networks and organizations.
What does this all mean? The United States is a very different place than Europe and this changes how it should approach risks of terrorism. If the American approach to immigration and outsiders has helped bond new groups into the country, then our response to the attacks in Europe should be to strengthen those bonds. This means strengthening desires to be American, not weakening them with alienation and ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approaches.
The terrorist attacks the United States has seen since 9/11 have been lone wolf attacks, unlike the large organized attacks in Europe. Could such attacks occur in the United States? It is possible, and the U.S. law enforcement needs to remain vigilant. To counter lone wolf attacks, however, the United States will need community help, both to identify at-risk individuals and counter radical narratives.
The attack in Brussels again highlights the importance of countering terrorists and the narrative they use to further their ideology. The United States can both help Europe and learn from what has happened. But some of the ideas proposed in the U.S. could push American communities towards the same dangers seen in Europe. If the United States ignores why Europe’s dangers exist, it may damage its own security.