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Is Tending And Befriending The Antidote To Terrorism?

12/06/2017 15:52 BST | Updated 12/06/2017 15:52 BST
Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The Manchester One Love concert pulled together by Ariana Grande made us all feel better, not just because it was a show of resilience and force, but also because it allowed us to unite. Police were seen holding hands and dancing in circles with young children, while Katy Perry invited everyone to choose love by reaching out to touch the person next to them.

This sort of social energy, known as 'tending and befriending' in psychology circles, serves two important purposes. Tending revolves around nurturing our young by pulling them in close to us and caring for them, keeping them safe and releasing a chemical in our brains that makes us feel less threatened and fearful. Befriending is about building communities by increasing our social connection with others, reducing the risks we face. One villager might be considered fair game by a marauding gang. But a whole village?

Unfortunately, it may be by using the power of befriending that Islamist extremists have been able to radicalise so many people. According to experts from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, the shift from extremist ideologist to actual terrorist rarely takes place exclusively online.

Although a disaffected individual might start their descent into terrorism by looking at online propaganda, it's possibly once they join a face-to-face social network that builds strong interpersonal bonds, based on "in-group love", that they become truly radicalised. Far from coming to their beliefs in isolation, it's the sense of purpose and belonging that comes from joining a banned extremist group that's the most influential factor.

There's much to be said for increasing the powers and resources required to disband these groups and stop those who would do us harm once they get to that stage. But how much better would it be if they were never tempted to go down that path in the first place?

Throughout the One Love concert, there was much talk of choosing love and togetherness to conquer fear and hate. Soft and ineffectual as this may seem, the power of reaching out and finding reasons to connect with neighbours and form protective social relationships is not to be underestimated. Not only does tending and befriending each other give us the strength to deter threats and comfort each other through the pain of loss, it can also prevent people from becoming radicalised in the first place. Let's face it no-one is born a terrorist: it's a terrible path they come to, often to the great distress of their own relatives.

Of course, creating safe, inclusive, tight-knit communities that give everyone a satisfying sense of belonging is easier said than done. But if we don't at least attempt to tend and befriend one another in good times, as well as bad, an increasing minority will continue to be sucked into dangerous ways of attempting to fill that void.

With the fight against terror as much about changing minds as it is about preventing actions, the values of unity and togetherness promoted at the One Love concert might yet turn out to be one of our most effective defences.