Are extremists out to destroy America? While we often look at the ill effects of extremism — murder, rape, brutal corporate punishments, racism, etc. — we rarely look at what they actually want and why. The following feature explores those issues.
All political and religious systems are ideas which groups of people agree to share. Extremism is what happens when you step outside the paradigm we have all agreed on to make decisions, and start using something else as the foundation of your worldview.
Let’s consider a benign example:
A person – let’s call him Steve – steps in a room that is far too hot. Steve must cool down immediately before he passes out. What would be an extreme way for Steve to do this versus a normal way?
If Steve approaches this normally (like a moderate), he might simply turn on the fan and step in front of it. If he was an extremist (and crazy, to boot) he might go out and buy a gigantic freezer, turn it on and climb inside.
Both decisions start with an underlying problem: Steve wants to avoid collapsing from heat stroke.
But what makes buying a freezer and the fridge and jumping inside an extreme way to solve the problem (besides the fact the if Steve stays in there long enough, he will freeze to death)?
By ignoring the fan and choosing to buy a freezer, Steve decides to create a new reality – and that’s what makes his choice extreme.
Let apply this model to politics.
The normal political infrastructure we have in place has lots of options. You can support many different policy goals but still stay within the structure. This means that you accept (at least some of) the structure’s core basic values – namely, that decisions are going to be made by elected representatives, the constitution is the foundation of the law and at least in the U.S., those laws follow universal principles of human rights.
Extremism is what happens when a person steps outside the whole framework.
At the core, this is what connects all forms of extremism. Extremists don’t just have different ideas for how things should be done; they advocate throwing out the entire system altogether and doing things a completely different way. In short, they want to destroy America as it is known today.
Normally this comes about through a root assault on the ideological foundations of the state itself. Whereas those within the system can and should criticize it when necessary, an extremist’s main thrust is against what the state is, not what it does.
Islamist extremists reject America because it is not a fundamentalist theocracy ruled by sharia (Islamic) law. Far-Right extremists (depending on the type) reject either the American Revolution (and thus all American ideology since then) or the legitimacy of democracy itself.
Far-Left extremists see the modern liberal state as a capitalist system of oppression which needs to be torn down to institute a workers paradise.
So what happens after a person decides the state is illegitimate. Typically, he or she will fall under one of these three categories: soft extremism, hard extremism and ultra-hard extremism.
Soft extremists want to overthrow the state, but for tactical or pragmatic reasons see no reason to set themselves up against its institutions.
They are perfectly willing to work within the democratic framework to advance their agenda. They will not break the law, nor will they encourage violence against law enforcement or military personnel.
They will, however, encourage their followers to stop looking to the current American system for guidance and publish extensive works of theory and/or critique against the government.
The furthest they will be willing to go is protest marches and some forms of non-violence direct action, such as strikes or sit-ins.
Under America’s democratic system, the First Amendment protects the rights of soft extremists to speak their minds.
Examples of soft extremists include Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, parts of the Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-linked groups that adopted the “gradualism” doctrine (like the Council on American-Islamic Relations — CAIR), moderate communists, anarchist professors, and some Far-Right groups like the neo-reactionaries (NRx).
Hard extremists want to overthrow the state, and they want to do it right now. They are willing to use direct action and violence to advance their goals.
They oppose the government, which they consider inherently unjust. They will go a lot further than strikes and protests and are, at the very least, willing to engage in rioting.
If they think it’s necessary, they will wage war against the state, attacking and killing police officers, army personnel and government officials.
Ultra-hard extremists go further still. Not only are they committed to overthrowing the state by force, but they believe in the cause so passionately that they feel the ends justify the means.
They are willing to use absolutely any tactic they think will advance their agenda. This includes mass murder, lying and manipulation of every sort, extortion, rape and torture.
Examples include jihadi terrorists like ISIS or Hamas.
Categorizing extremists like this helps us understand the root of the issue: an ideological rejection of the principles of democracy itself.