‘Quest to mat­ter’ mo­ti­vates rad­i­cals

Psy­chol­o­gist: ‘Quest to mat­ter’ paves road to ex­trem­ism

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Angela Fritz The Wash­ing­ton Post

Psy­chol­o­gist says peo­ple, like Robert Bow­ers, be­come rad­i­cal­ized be­cause they want their lives to mat­ter.

Be­fore he walked into a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue, pro­fessed his de­sire to “kill Jews” and — armed with three hand­guns and an as­sault ri­fle — opened fire, au­thor­i­ties say Robert Bow­ers was al­ready rad­i­cal­ized.

He be­came an angry white na­tion­al­ist who au­thor­i­ties say killed 11 peo­ple in an act of hate.

Since the at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the rise of the Is­lamic State, re­searchers in­ten­sively have stud­ied what makes some­one a ter­ror­ist and how peo­ple be­come rad­i­cal­ized. Arie Kruglan­ski, a re­search psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, has found that al­though the sub­ject mat­ter of their ex­trem­ism may be dif­fer­ent, the way in which neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and mem­bers of the Is­lamic State evolve from merely dis­grun­tled to vi­o­lently angry is the same.

“It’s the quest for sig­nif­i­cance,” Kruglan­ski said. “The quest to mat­ter.”

For rad­i­cal­iza­tion to oc­cur, there are three nec­es­sary in­gre­di­ents, ac­cord­ing to Kruglan­ski’s re­search. The first is the uni­ver­sal need to live a worth­while life — to have sig­nif­i­cance. Peo­ple usu­ally sat­isfy this need through so­cially ac­cepted means, “like work­ing hard, hav­ing fam­i­lies, other kinds of achieve­ments,” Kruglan­ski said. Rad­i­cals in­stead tend to place sig­nif­i­cance on their gen­der, re­li­gion or race.

The se­cond is “the nar­ra­tive,” which gives some­one per­mis­sion to use vi­o­lence. Kruglan­ski said the nar­ra­tive is usu­ally that there is an en­emy at­tack­ing your group, and the rad­i­cal must fight to gain or main­tain re­spect, honor or glory.

The third nec­es­sary com­po­nent is the com­mu­nity, or the net­work of peo­ple who val­i­date the nar­ra­tive and the vi­o­lence.

Bow­ers had all three pil­lars of rad­i­cal­iza­tion, Kruglan­ski ob­served.

Be­fore the at­tack, “he had very lit­tle sig­nif­i­cance — odds-and-ends jobs,” and no fam­ily, Kruglan­ski said. His neigh­bors never in­ter­acted with him, and he did not seem to have many friends. He does not ap­pear to have fin­ished high school, and class­mates barely re­mem­bered him. “But he was a white male, and that made him part of a white ma­jor­ity.”

Kruglan­ski said the im­me­di­ate threat to Bow­ers’ sig­nif­i­cance, his white ma­jor­ity, was the car­a­van of im­mi­grants on its way to the United States, which prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tives linked to the Jewish com­mu­nity by sug­gest­ing that Ge­orge Soros, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, was pay­ing for and or­ga­niz­ing the car­a­van.

When some­one or some­thing threat­ens to take away “the only kind of sig­nif­i­cance these peo­ple have,” Kruglan­ski said, “they are ready to sac­ri­fice all other con­sid­er­a­tions and en­gage in a vi­o­lent act, and pay a very dear price for it.”

Tony McAleer, a for­mer skin­head and or­ga­nizer for White Aryan Re­sis­tance, said Kruglan­ski’s model is “spot on.” Not only did he ex­pe­ri­ence the search for sig­nif­i­cance, nar­ra­tive and net­work­ing that got him into hate groups when he was young, but he sees the pat­tern play out in the sto­ries of other “for­m­ers” as well.

“Al­though, there is some nu­ance,” McAleer said. “Every­body wants to be­long, and some­times there’s a lit­tle serendip­ity to who you meet and who ac­cepts you.” In some cases, the group it­self might help a per­son de­ter­mine what their sig­nif­i­cance is.

Hate crimes are on the rise, hit­ting a high in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion, which recorded more than 6,000 in­ci­dents that year. An in­de­pen­dent study found a spike in hate crimes specif­i­cally around the 2016 elec­tion. When some­one with rad­i­cal or con­spir­a­to­rial no­tions en­ters a po­si­tion of author­ity, Kruglan­ski said, it can be a game changer.

“These politi­cians, like (Pres­i­dent Trump), are giv­ing the ideas cred­i­bil­ity,” Kruglan­ski said. “It le­git­imizes the nar­ra­tive. It’s no longer a de­spised, fringe group — it’s part of the main­stream.”

And once some­one is rad­i­cal­ized, it be­comes sig­nif­i­cantly more dif­fi­cult to rea­son with the per­son. At that point, McAleer said, ide­ol­ogy and iden­tity are in­ter­twined. If you at­tack the ide­ol­ogy, you’re at­tack­ing the per­son.

In­stead, McAleer said, the per­son has to first dis­en­gage from the com­mu­nity be­fore de­rad­i­cal­iza­tion is pos­si­ble. That is how he went from an ac­tive white na­tion­al­ist to a fa­ther of two and co-founder of Life After Hate, a non­profit that helps peo­ple leave rad­i­cal groups. The small or­ga­ni­za­tion has three full-time em­ploy­ees in ad­di­tion to its vol­un­teers and has been over­whelmed by peo­ple reach­ing out for help in the last year.

“Since Char­lottesville, we’ve helped about 125 peo­ple,” McAleer said. The group is work­ing on a three­day train­ing course to teach med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and law en­force­ment about white na­tion­al­ism and give them tools to in­ter­rupt the process be­fore vi­o­lence hap­pens.

De­rad­i­cal­iza­tion, Kruglan­ski said, re­quires ex­pos­ing the per­son “to a dif­fer­ent, more pro-so­cial nar­ra­tive, and par­tic­u­larly get­ting them at­tracted to al­ter­na­tive net­works that give them re­spect.” He said it’s not enough to shut down ex­trem­ist web­sites and at­tempt to iso­late a group’s mem­bers, be­cause that “al­lows them to stew in their own nar­ra­tive.”

Pre­vent­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion also re­quires a de­cline in hate­ful rhetoric, es­pe­cially from peo­ple they ad­mire.

“There are many mis­er­able peo­ple who have this quest for sig­nif­i­cance,” Kruglan­ski said. “With­out the nar­ra­tive and with­out the group, they would be just that. Mis­er­able.”


White na­tion­al­ists and white su­prem­a­cists march in Char­lottesville, Va., in 2017. Hate crimes, which topped more than 6,000 in 2016, spiked close to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

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