Fight Terrorism with the Space Program?
Public service is about serving others and a cause bigger than yourself. That sense of something bigger has drawn us toward incredible achievements in our history, like exploring space.
But what if there was another reason for our government to prioritize space exploration? What if a grand public purpose like that could also make our nation safer from terrorism?
There’s a lot we don’t know about why young people, usually young men, become terrorists. When we look at the research into radicalization to a terrorist ideology—which ideology they choose often depends on their social networks—some of our assumptions about terrorists turn out to be false. They aren’t necessarily nihilists, religious fanatics, or mentally ill (though many are). In fact, most terrorists and their supporters are considered psychologically normal and some have no idea why they became terrorists. For the rest, they are drawn to the idea that they can fix this disastrous world—particularly an American foreign policy they see as oppressive—with a noble sacrifice, that the ends justify the means to this eventual glorious future, and that they can find camaraderie and adventure in terrorist groups and causes. (Meaning that, in a twisted way, terrorists often see themselves as public servants too.) These are all ideas which researchers have found behind terrorist groups for decades and they add up to a search for purpose in our modern world. Some experts argue that the only way to combat the allure of radicalization for lonely, alienated young people is to provide them with a different purpose.
This is, unfortunately, something western Democratic societies can struggle with. In a system and philosophy built around securing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the most important thing to give people is the freedom and ability to choose their own path. Our ideals have built the great nation we live in and the modern age we inhabit and they have much to offer. However, they are in some ways the opposite of a grand purpose everyone in a society takes part in and that absence is a trade-off most citizens of the modern era have to balance in their own lives. Those moments when everyone is pulling in the same direction are especially powerful, like after a major disaster, precisely because they’re relatively rare otherwise. Terrorists may not exactly “hate us for our freedom,” but it’s hard to bring them back from radicalism with freedom’s appeal alone.
If we are casting about for a grand purpose that would appeal to the kinds of young people vulnerable to violent ideologies, we have to discard quite a few options right out of the gate, like foreign conquest, military glory, or religious conversion. We’re a nation of immigrants, so we have no “people” to spread around the world. With communism’s collapse in the 90s, we have lost any credible existential threat to our way of life. So what’s left? Few grand purposes are as exciting as space exploration, which calls on our fascination with the new and with science, the human desire to explore the unknown, and the excitement of facing real danger in the pursuit of the public good. An hour spent on the internet or Facebook will convince you that space science and space exploration hold real appeal for everyday Americans, where the kind of people who slept through science class in high school are still fascinated by someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Polls indicate that a large majority of Americans believe space exploration is important and are optimistic that we’ll explore our solar system and beyond in the coming decades.
What they are less excited about is paying for a space program, which is one reason why every President for the last 20 years has talked about big plans for space exploration and then never followed through in a manner comparable to the investment of the 1960s. A renewed national investment in and focus on space exploration would provide disaffected young people a purpose to follow, whether or not they become space travelers themselves, and give our nation and ideology a powerful weapon to combat radicalism of all kinds. It’s difficult to claim that your ideology of violence is the path to a better future when your enemy is the one putting people on Mars. It would also serve as a uniting public purpose in a time of increasing political and cultural polarization. We know it’s possible. A generation who saw the first cars put men on the Moon. What’s lacking is leadership.
Now, other huge goals in public service—something like the Hyperloop or a goal to eradicate disease—can also be motivating in the same way. People are driven by the desire to help other human beings and their fellow citizens. But there’s a reason the word for “moonshot” has “moon” in it. Exploration excites us and drives us, as a civilization, in unique ways. While those other goals are certainly important, and American politics could use some big thinking, space exploration is the best candidate for the kind of goal that would pull young people away from self-destructive ideologies.
Leadership and organization is something that public servants, regardless of where they work, can provide. We have the platform and influence to help move public policy in the right direction. We all understand what it’s like to serve a cause bigger than ourselves. We can share the gift of purpose with our fellow citizens.
Joseph Maltby is the Director of Research for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders in government which seeks to provide an authentic voice for that generation in public service. He also creates short educational videos on YouTube covering government and policy issues. He is a federal employee working on federal retirement issues.
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