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Just Following Orders? Why Extremism is a Choice

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(Illustrative photo: Flickr/Manuel)
(Illustrative photo: Flickr/Manuel)

Radicalization is something that has come to be viewed as an excuse for joining extremist groups and following orders to committing all sorts of  horrific acts. But except in the case of children, extremism is always a choice. Read why.

Terrorists use sophisticated tactics to lure recruits into their movement. They prey on psychological weaknesses, making the target feel special, powerful and marked out for a glorious destiny. The mind-control techniques they use are highly advanced and will work on many people.

None of that takes away from the moral culpability that anyone who becomes a terrorist holds for their actions.

Here’s why:

Mind Control is Really Mind Influence

There is a long standing principle in hypnosis that all hypnosis is really self-hypnosis. That is, you can’t hypnotize someone to do something that isn’t somewhere in their subconscious or something they want to do on some level.

All you can do is bring people into a relaxed state of mind where they are more susceptible to suggestion.

You can’t, for example, use mind control techniques to make gay people straight, despite the millions of dollars invested by Christian organizations to try and develop an effective method of doing so.

Extremists convince people to act in what the tell people are their best interests. They offer incentives so that doing what the movement wants gives the recruit some kind of payoff.

This becomes much easier when the extremist group can provide benefits to the target, for example, social camaraderie, a clear structure for how to live and a well defined mission to devote yourself to are all benefits of joining an extremist movement.

But the brainwashing can’t do more than heavily influence a person.

 

Giving Up Control Makes Life Easier, But It’s Still a Choice

When a person gives in to mind control in a cult, they make a decision to abdicate responsibility for making choices and turn it over to the cult leader or organizers.

When a person stops thinking for himself or herself and takes on the attitudes of the cult, even under pressure, he or she is making a choice.

True, that choice may be heavily influenced. Humans are highly adaptable creatures who long to fit in and be successful within the context of a group.

Extremists use many tactics to induce a sense of identification with the group and a shift in core beliefs. This may include extremely coercive tactics like isolation, sleep deprivation, pushing drugs on the recruit or even encouraging them to commit crimes to bind themselves to the new group.

Sleep deprivation and strict dietary control, in particular, can sap a person’s energy and make it extremely difficult for them to think clearly about what is going on.

But unless the person is being physically held against their will, they still have a choice to resist brainwashing techniques and remove themselves from the situation.

This is what makes education so critical. If people are taught to recognize the techniques and tactics which groups use in brainwashing, they can learn to walk away from those sorts of situations.

Steve Hassan’s “Bite Model” is a good resource for the main methods cults use to indoctrinate people.

 

Judges Don’t Accept Brainwashing as a Defense

“I’ve come to view what happened to me is a viral, memetic infection,” ex-Moonie Diane Benscoter said in a TED Talk. “For those of you who aren’t familiar with memetics, a meme has been defined as an idea that replicates in the human brain and moves from brain to brain like a virus, much like a virus. The way a virus works is — it can infect and do the most damage to someone who has a compromised immune system.”

In other words, an extremist group can take over your mind when your resistance is low.

However, if a person commits crimes while a member of an extremist group, it is important to note that courts do not accept claims of mind control as a defense.

In a classic case, in 1976 Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst media fortune, shocked America by joining the Symbionese Liberation Army after they kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed her. She participated in the group’s activities including bank robbing. Such was her commitment at the time that she did not run away from the group despite later having the opportunity to escape.

When she was finally caught, her lawyer attempted to argue she had been the victim of brainwashing. The jury did not accept it, and she was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment, later reduced to seven.

President Carter later commuted her sentence to two years.

More recently Smallville Actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to helping NXIM cult leader Keith Raniere induct women into his sex cult. Among the allegations are that women were trafficked and branded.

Despite the brainwashing these women were subjected to, their crimes were still considered crimes and were treated as such by the courts.

 

In Sum, Difficult Situations Don’t Overturn Personal Responsibility 

A Dr. Phil episode featured a father who was a member of a cult who turned his 13-year old daughter over to the cult leader to rape as a bride within the church. Dr. Phil unpacks the situation and explains that there is no amount of brainwashing which could override his duty as father.

It is worth watching the clip:

 

RELATED STORIES

The Surprising (and Successful) Use of Love by Extremists

Why Extremism Isn’t About Economics 

How ‘Generation Wealth’ Is a Boon for Islamist Extremists

 

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