America is now at a watershed. In the last year, at least two dozen men in the United States have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. They include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant driver in Denver who authorities say was conspiring to carry out a domestic attack; David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American from Chicago who is suspected of helping plan the 2008 attacks in Mumbai; and the five young men from Virginia who, authorities say, sought training in Pakistan to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan.
These cases have sent intelligence analysts scurrying for answers. The American suspects come from different backgrounds and socioeconomic strata, but they share much in common with Europe’s militants: they tend to be highly motivated, even gifted people who were reared in the West with one foot in the Muslim world. Others may see them as rigid or zealous, but they envision themselves as deeply principled, possessing what Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, calls “an altruism gone wildly wrong.” While their religious piety varies, they are most often bonded by a politically driven anger that has deepened as America’s war against terrorism endures its ninth year.
That is just a short bit from a very engaging, in-depth article. I'm pleased to see that Elliott refuses to regurgitate the normal "Muslims iz crazy!!!" rhetoric of much press coverage. These actors act politically and strategically; they aren't crazy or nihilistic. Some of them are barely religious, if at all.
None of which is meant as any sort of justification or equivocation of course; they're still vicious murders whether they're motivated by politics or piety. But it's important to understand who your enemy is and what motivates him. If we treat these actors as irrational psychopaths then that will lead us towards one type of action; if we treat them as rational strategic actors, it will lead us toward a very different course of action.
Framing matters, and changing the conversation from hysteria to pragmatism can only help us. Hopefully political scientists can be in the vanguard of that ideological fight.