Friday, April 24, 2015

What makes extremists tick? Is religious extremism different from political?


One of the most shocking aspects of terrorism today is the way extremists look at civilians as “fair game” and appear to view “ordinary civilians” as morally culpable personally for what their government has done or what others do. 
  
I could say that this sounds related to political attitudes in the past that supported the military draft (for men in the US, and for everyone in some countries like Israel).  It speaks not of victims but of casualties.  It views life as essentially dangerous and requires everyone to share the risk or be labeled with cowardice. This was a common style of thinking in the 1950s.
  
It’s also simply historical fact over the millennia, that civilian populations are attacked.  However, the acts associated with radical Islam and most recently ISIS are indeed processed as shocking.
  
And with the Internet comes a new existential problem, the idea of (associational) targeting, especially by unstable people prodded by the Internet, as addressed in a story about Twitter today (main blog).  In theory, anyone could be singled out (“persecuted”) for professing simply a non-Islamic religion online, as could associates.  This could raise psychological warfare in western countries in a way that seems unprecedented, although varieties have occurred in the past.

  
I looked up a few links on the psychology of extremism.  A piece in Psychology Today seems to stress, that with groups like Al Qaida, Boko Haran and ISIS, it really is about religion.  It seems incredible and illogical to us, but some people really do believe that their creed requires them to kill in its name.  In the distant past, this was more common.  There were elements of this in the Crusades, in tribal Arabia at the time of Muhammad, and in Old Testament history as the “Jews” struggled to survive as a “chosen people” scattered into separate tribes.  The group was everything. College students learn about this in History 101 and answer exam questions on it, and then forget it.
  
I listed a few other sources on extremism, on Blogger by John Sanidopoulos (“Mystagogy”), and a couple of psychology sites (“Intractability” and Laird Wilcox).  Generally, my experience is that extremist criminal behavior is a continuum related to inequality.  The “privileged” are seen as “having it coming to them” if they didn’t earn what they have.  This was a common rhetoric from the radical Left in the 60s and 70s.  Some left wing commentators like Noam Chomsky see a continuum between ordinary violent crime, war, and terror.  In my own DADT-3 book, I argue that individualism and at least temporary inequality are linked and essential to innovation, but on the other hand when the “privileged” don’t give back, indignation and then instability result.  Disadvantaged young males (in the US, often black and Latino) see little point in “playing by the rules” which are ignored anyway.  Furthermore, an individualist society requires certain cognitive skills which well-off teens  learn from parents (how to be productive and provide what other people will pay for) but those in less intact backgrounds don’t get. 
  
Still, this theory doesn’t explain why some well-off young men become terrorists, or why some less advantaged first turn to Islam and find some kind of peace with it and then later turn to violence.  What really went on in the mind of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (as with “Jahar” tweeting here     The next-to-last tweet, after the attack, is rather interesting and disturbing (as is April 8).  And remember in his “Manifesto” inside the boat, he saw himself as a cell in a group mind. 

Picture: weapons case, and combat scene, from the Airborne and Special Operations Museum near Fort Bragg, Fayetteville NC. 

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