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We Don’t Talk About ‘Radicalization’ When an Attacker Isn’t Muslim: We Should

By Jack Hitt

December 6, 2016

Whenever a mass shooting or some other large-scale, incomprehensible attack occurs, the nation collectively holds its breath, waiting to see which set of cultural prejudices can be mobilized to frame the massacre. In the week before the election, when two officers from the Des Moines area were murdered in cold blood, a police spokesman may have gotten ahead of himself when he said that “there are some not-so-positive views of law enforcement that a certain segment of our population holds.” What was probably being hinted at here was that the shooter had to be black and all worked up by the Black Lives Matter movement — a presumption immediately squelched once the suspect was identified as Scott Michael Greene, a white local who had enjoyed engaging in racial incitement by waving a Confederate flag at a high-school football game.

When attackers turn out to be Muslims, it’s assumed their path to violence is different from all others, with its own specialized language. Within hours of the report that Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a Somali-born Ohio State University student, had plowed into innocent bystanders with a car and then sliced others with a butcher knife, Representative Adam Schiff issued a statement, observing that the attacker “may have been self-radicalized.” Likewise, when Ahmad Khan Rahimi was accused of planting bombs in New Jersey and New York in September, one F.B.I. agent felt compelled to say, “I do not have information yet to show what the path of radicalization was.”

Radicalization. Once we have this word in hand, then we can sift the early news items for bits of confirming evidence, such as the suspect’s suddenly adopting more religious clothes, or growing a beard, or visiting some far-off terrorist landscape. For Rahimi, we learned that he spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where such an opaque process as radicalization could happen.

If the attacker “self-radicalized,” we typically learn that he or she spent time on some arcane internet site, or maybe just freelanced some gonzo rhetoric, as the O.S.U. student did, reportedly posting on Facebook: “Seeing my fellow Muslims being tortured, raped and killed in Burma led to a boiling point. I can’t take it anymore. America stop interfering with other countries.” ISIS is now backfilling the story by declaring this Ohio college student a “soldier.”

Curiously, the trigger for lone wolves was not only political but often personal.

Radicalization seems to mean something, the gist of which is this: that there is a knowable and coherent process, like a kind of matriculation — that moves a once-normal human being along some grisly progression until he or she is killing people. It’s a sturdy box of a word filled with apparent meaning, yet when pressed upon to deliver the specifics, mostly collapses like cardboard.

In the years after 9/11, various military colleges and antiterrorism groups burned off many grants and federal dollars on workshops trying to divine the steps of radicalization. Probably the most well known theory is the Georgetown University psychology Professor Fathali M. Moghaddam’s metaphor of radicalization as “a narrowing staircase leading to the terrorist act at the top of a building.” The ground floor is heavily populated by those who perceive some form of injustice or deprivation. Those who wish to do something about it climb to the first floor. The second floor, not as populated, accommodates those who, having found no solutions to their problems, displace their aggression on some enemy. The third floor harbours those fewer people who join a group facilitating a kind of moral engagement before they ascend to the fourth floor, where “recruitment to terrorist organizations takes place.” Then, finally, the fifth floor, where they are trained to “sidestep inhibitory mechanisms” and sent to kill. “As individuals climb the staircase,” Moghaddam writes, “they see fewer and fewer choices, until the only possible outcome is the destruction of others, or oneself, or both.”

Some radicalization theories can get pretty woolly. A 2010 study by the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group proposed not only “16 theories” that describe radicalization (including “uncertainty reduction theory” and “absolutist/apocalyptic theory” and “novelty-seeking theory”) but also “12 mechanisms” by which a group or individual radicalizes (including “fissioning” and “condensation” and even “the power of love”) — all of which can be complicated by one of “16 risk factors,” which can include “emotional vulnerability” and “in-group delegitimisation of the out-group” and “youth.”

In current discourse, “radicalization” tends to limit unthinkable attacks to those carried out by anyone of Middle Eastern descent — but why? Micah Johnson, an African-American man in Dallas, murdered five police officers in the wake of new YouTube videos showing black citizens being fatally shot by the police — was he self-radicalized? Or Jerad and Amanda Miller, the white couple who joined the antigovernment protests at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in 2014 before being asked to leave and then fatally gunned down a civilian and two police officers in Las Vegas — were they radicalized?

Just what does it take to climb the staircase — especially to get to that last floor — when it suddenly makes sense to “sidestep inhibitory mechanisms” and start killing people? The fact is, mass murder might be too complex a subject for a whiteboard.

And always, in the end, there comes the disclaimer that these are just expressions, never intended to encourage anyone to violence.

Some of the more restrained analysis, though, reveals unexpected ways to think about contemporary terrorism. Mark S. Hamm and Ramón Spaaij break down terrorists into the ways they form. In their forthcoming book, “The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism,” they look at the solo attacker, like Jared Loughner (Tucson, 2011) and Omar Mateen (Orlando, 2016). Other studies might examine, say, cells of three or more, or pairs like the Millers in Las Vegas and the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston.

Curiously, the trigger for lone wolves, Spaaij told me, was not only political but often personal. Not long before his cop-killing spree outside Des Moines, Greene had a fight with his mother, resulting in her getting a protective order against him — a break eerily similar to that of Richard Poplawski, the Pennsylvania man whose mother called 911 on him in 2009, leading to the murder of three Pittsburgh police officers.

What often precedes these personal crises leading to violence, Spaaij said, is the “enabler” phase of radicalization, which can involve the killers’ happening upon encouraging messages from faraway leaders. When Muslims are identified as the attackers, we often learn about their obsession with the droning sermons of online imams like Anwar al-Awlaki. In the radicalization of Poplawski, “research shows that our discourse provides the environment that can enable terrorism,” Spaaij said. “He had embraced this conspiracy theory that Obama would take away his right to bear arms.” Spaaij cited conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who promotes the idea that FEMA camps are being built as concentration camps for dissidents and the federal government is hatching plans to seize people’s guns, as spreading the kind of degraded public discourse that lays the groundwork for action. Then, when violence occurs, “they can distance themselves and say that you cannot connect that with us because we don’t advocate violence.”

In 2010, Sarah Palin posted a map to her Facebook page that laid the cross hairs of a gun sight over districts that threatened the Republican agenda, including Gabrielle Giffords’s. Months later, when a gunman did fire a bullet point-blank through Giffords’s head, some conservative activists were outraged that anyone drew a connection between Palin’s playful clip art and an actual head shot. Donald Trump had, on at least one occasion, suggested vaguely that “Second Amendment people” knew what to do with his opponent. During the Republican National Convention, Trump’s campaign issued a statement that it did not “agree” with the view of Al Baldasaro, his delegate and a New Hampshire state representative, that “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” This language is routinely defended as metaphorical when spoken by prominent people, and just salty heartland gibberish when uttered by anybody else. And always, in the end, there comes the disclaimer that these are just expressions, never intended to encourage anyone to violence.

Since the election, there has been an explosion of hate speech — Trump’s name with the T bent into a swastika showed up on walls, and one racist group with the reassuringly meaningless name National Policy Institute erupted into straight-arm Nazi salutes. YouTube videos increasingly feature emboldened racists ranting in any public place — an airplane, a craft store, a coffee shop, a classroom, a school bus.

The study of terrorists’ history suggests there is a relationship between these two forms of radical discourse. Distant authorities talking in a deniably cryptic way contribute to the rationalization for violence. This shift toward violence can have an effect at just about every level — from the lone-wolf killer, to couples, to hidden cells. And although it’s a more esoteric field of study for policy-centre professionals, radicalization of an entire nation is possible, too — typically after reckless innuendo from political leaders becomes acceptable and then routine.

Jack Hitt is a writer whose most recent book is “Bunch of Amateurs.”