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Religion, Orlando, Salt Lake and ISIS

The common denominator is that every group is a big welcoming family.



If you are one of the many Christian faiths, or are Jewish or Muslim, you may define religion as belief in a superhuman controlling power, backed by feelings, organization, ethics and shared values. Buddhism is an awareness with spirituality, kindness and shared values, and a similar societal sense of family, but without a deity. Unitarian Universalists share from both Western and Eastern philosophies.

The common denominator is that every group is a big welcoming family, providing a sense of belonging to something. Except for a differing interpretation of our shared society's sense of ethics, this definition of religion could easily encompass street gangs, or ISIS.

Cells associated with ISIS, or its equivalent, haven't yet been identified around here. But at a recent Cottonwood Heights Citizens Police Academy session, I learned that there are many other group affiliations. Approximately 36 Hispanic street gangs are functioning in Utah. There are 26 ethnic Black affiliated Crips gangs and Bloods. We have six Asian gangs, five "Midwest" influenced gangs, six white supremacists, or Aryans, and four "other" extremist gangs, right here in Utah. So, even though we haven't yet seen evidence of any associated with Middle-East centric terrorist violence, it is estimated that there are between 3,000 and 3,500 Utahns who are gang members.

So, what's a gang? Police Officers define gangs as affinity groups with crime as one of its main activities, as opposed to, say, your church, the Boy Scouts or the Utah State Senate.

Lt. Mike Schoenfeld of the Unified Police Department Metro Gang Unit feels that gangs are more often about money, power and drugs, but cautions not to profile all gang members as criminals, although most gangs do make money by engaging in illegal drug distribution, auto theft, robbery and some prostitution. Utah gang violence is mostly gang-on-gang, unlike terrorists who are threats to the general population.

Utah gang recruiting is active and starts as early as elementary school with children as young as 8. So, while criminal activity financially supports our homegrown gangs, the appeal of membership, to children as well as adults, is that they fill a vacuum and provide a much needed feeling of family unity, security, protection and a structured support system. In many ways, it is a lot like religion, and unnervingly like online ISIS recruiting.

Law Enforcement organizations like SLCPD are succeeding at winning members away from gangs through, for example, the Salt Lake Area Gang Project and its "Choose Gang Free" program. This has growing support from local, county and state public officials.

This is working; yet, notice the similarity between the appeal of our street gangs and ISIS's appeal to the Orlando killer, the San Bernardino killers and disaffected Europeans who have become part of today's continental terrorist problems.

Common to both types of joiners are feelings that "the system is rigged" and there is no lawful way to bootstrap to success. Many on both sides of the Atlantic are drawn to a need to belong to something. That void is filled both by street gangs and terrorist groups.

Moreover, gangs let men become alpha males. In the recent book Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits are Now Killing Us Lee Goldman, M.D., explains that alpha-male dominance has been baked into our genes since the earliest of times when the most aggressive humans survived by killing all the Neanderthals, as well as more reasonable humans who preferred the negotiating table to outright violence. That's why, he explains, today's killers are programmed to fight to win at any cost. It isn't guns, the thesis opines. People really do kill people.

The Orlando massacre is now at the top of our thoughts, but this is just the latest of mass devastation that is occurring more frequently. Recently, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national of Moroccan origin was captured in Belgium and charged with last November's terrorist attacks in Paris which claimed 130 lives. Abdeslam was seized in the troubled Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, home to a large, impoverished Muslim minority population. His capture was followed by bombings in Brussels on March 22. We link these events to ISIS, but European news has reported that Abdeslam doesn't know much about Islam and he got his ideas from the internet. He was described by one as one of the younger generation who thinks he lives in a video game like Grand Theft Auto, rather than a terrorist with religious conviction or philosophical ideals.

According to The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Joby Warrick, "Many [of these terrorists] are essentially part of street gangs." Street gangs!

The true motivations of Orlando's shooter may not be revealed for a while. But, if Brussels and Paris are more about disaffection than about philosophy, there is no reason to believe that more disaffected Americans will not become just as dangerous. These Belgian kids didn't blow themselves up in order to make a religious statement. They went to Paris to blow up other guys. So, is that the new religion of gangs? Will Paris-style attacks increase in America by fanatics like Patriot Movement supporter Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City?

Recognize that disaffected radicalization is as close as the internet. Jails won't help. We have the most citizens incarcerated in the world and we still aren't safe. Instead, we need more stuff like the Salt Lake Area Gang Project and more programs to reach kids early with after-school art, sports, music and other opportunities. For adults, we must fill the vacuum in education, healthcare, housing and belonging.

We must compete against gangs with fairness. We must win this battle by being smarter than organized street gangs and ISIS.

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