Looking at the headlines, we see that extremism is openly thriving. Yet, some headlines — like those coming out of Portland and Seattle — stand out over others and beg the question: What triggers extremism? Are there certain traits in individuals that can help point to signs of vulnerability?
A sense of being above the law, a feeling of belonging to a larger than life mission — these are certainly both components of what makes an extremist that are relevant to today.
A 2019 Clarion Project white paper on the ILAM (Identify, Listen, Monitor, and Address) model for preventing violent extremism, opened up with an anecdote of Napoleon. The short vignette sheds insight into how he thought, how he believed he was above the law, but more importantly, how he convinced others to fall into alignment with those beliefs.
When Napoleon escaped from exile and landed in southern France, the former emperor had just a handful of supporters. Soldiers were sent by the current king to arrest him. But many of those men had spent years in Napoleon’s service and had marched with him to Moscow and back.
Instead of giving in to fear, Napoleon took charge of the situation. The king saw him as a fugitive and political exile. Napoleon saw himself as an emperor. He walked up to the men and stared them down, despite the barrels of the muskets facing him.
And when he was close enough, he spoke. “If you would fire on your emperor, do it.”
The incident, whether or not it has been embellished by history, is telling: How does one man, facing many men with weapons, persuade them to abandon their allegiance to their king and join him? Why do people fight for some causes and not others?
What happened at that moment was a shift in frame. In one moment, Napoleon was a disgraced former leader who had escaped from prison and needed to be brought to justice. In the next, he was the rightful emperor of France.
The transition took place in the minds of the men who followed him. And so with us, political ideologies are all stories we tell each other to make sense of our social reality.
Preventing and countering violent extremism is about finding out why and how those shifts in framing take place. When do people stop believing in the legitimacy of the state and human rights and take on dangerous ideas that may lead them to kill? And how can we help ensure they make positive life-affirming choices, instead of dangerous ones?
In a report published by the National Institute of Justice in 2018, Dr. Allison G. Smith identifies the risk factors associated with what makes a person radical to the point of committing an act of terrorism. The report offers 25 possible risk factors including:
- A history of criminality and/or criminal violence
- Involvement with a gang or delinquent peers
- Friendship with a terrorist
- Being a member of an extremist group for an extended period of time
- Deep commitment to an extremist ideology
- Psychological issues
- Unemployment or sporadic work history
- Less educated
- Low socio-economic status
- Failure to achieve one’s aspirations
- Trouble in romantic or platonic relationships
- Abused as an adult
- Alienated from one’s family
Missing from Smith’s list (although implied in many of the factors) is the feeling of being a victim, a prevalent theme in today’s culture of intersectionality and identity politics.
The markers are widely scattered across the map with at least one or two applying to most people. What we do know is that there is no concrete formula for what makes one person with these markers turn to extremism and another — under similar constraints — able to overcome them.
One recurring theme in these risk factors is very relevant to our world today: social isolation and its ensuing feelings of alienation from society.
Many places in America are now five months into coronavirus lockdowns. Social distancing has become the new normal and the effects of this isolation can be devastating on mental health.
When we step back and look at the landscape through the lens of extremism markers, there’s a question of whether these events on the ground were amplified by isolation and alienation, both pre-existing and those that were experienced under the coronavirus lockdowns.
Yet considering the widespread support for Antifa — despite the violent rioting by the group in Portland and other locations — we much ask: Why are so many everyday Americans crowding around a fringe identity group like Antifa?
In a vacuum, a group like Antifa would have very little power, but now it is paired with the rising tide of a social movement during a time when people are suffering from a lack of connection to each other.
Group dynamics is key
Interestingly, this same group phenomenon is typically found in far-flung corners of the world in connection with militant jihad. [See Fair, Christine C., Neil Malhotra, and Jacob N. Shapiro. “Islam, militancy, and politics in Pakistan: Insights from a national sample.”Terrorism and Political Violence 22, no. 4 (2010): 495-521.]
In the context of religious extremism and jihadism, group dynamics helps us understand how people with different backgrounds and identities come together and unite over a cause.
A report by the Arab Center Washington DC titled, “Understanding Violent Extremism: The Social Psychology of Identity and Group Dynamics” explored why people join ISIS and other jihadi groups. It concluded that while “individuals choose to join for a number of different reasons, including alienation, oppression, ideologies, or adventure … the most consistent findings in academic and field research show that injustice and discrimination against minority groups are the primary motivators [of violent extremism].”
Further, the report noted:
“The … group process that facilitates violent extremism is the view of evil as virtue, where violent extremists really believe that their actions are righteous. This occurs when the out-group is perceived as a threat to the in-group … Once the out-group has been established as a threat, it is automatically dehumanized and its destruction becomes a virtuous act of self-defense.”
The same group dynamics explains why very different groups of people are coming together at this time in American history.
While most Americans don’t believe they’re above the law (yet), the increased support for Antifa — despite the violence being perpetrated — shows that extremist groups no longer belong to a fringe population. This means we can expect to see escalated violence in the months to come.