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Are a lot of us potential militant extremists?

- June 1, 2009

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A fascinating new study of militant extremism contains a useful model of the major components of the military-extremist mind-set and suggests an unsettling answer to the question posed above.

The study, by Gerard Saucier, Laura Geuy Akers, Sepaphine Shen-Miller, Goran Knezevic, and Lazar Stankov, appears in the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Access to the article is gated, but here is a pre-publication version.

Militant extremism, as Saucier and his colleagues define it, involves “zealous adherence to a set of beliefs and values that combine advocacy of measures beyond the norm and intention and willingness to resort to violence.” From their study of a diverse array of militant-extremists around the world (e.g., the Baader-Meinhof Gang , the IRA, Shining Path, Theodore Kaczynski, and Tmothy McVeigh), a profile of 16 prominent themes emerged. These themes are summarized in the following composite narrative:

bq. “We have a glorious past, but modernity has been disastrous, bringing on a great catastrophe in which we are tragically obstructed from reaching our rightful place, obstructed by an illegitimate civil government and/or by an enemy so evil that it does not even deserved to be called human. This intolerable situation calls for vengeance. Extreme measures are required … We must think in military terms to annihilate this evil and purify the world of it, and we cannot be blamed for carrying out this violence. Those who sacrifice themselves in our cause will attain glory, and supernatural powers should come to our aid in this struggle. In the end, we will bring our people to a new world that is a paradise.”

The authors map the distribution of these 16 themes across the militant groups and individuals they study. No two groups or individuals fit the same profile in terms of their acceptance of these themes, indicating that “militant extremist represents not just one, but an orchestra of responses working in concert.”

“This prototype composite storyline,” the authors concede, “may seem like a dramatic comic-book plot … But … for psychological reasons, the plot sells. Such a plot is highly attention-engaging and may be profoundly motivating to many individuals.”

That last observation provides a springboard for broadening the analysis from militant extremists to the general population:

bq. “If militant extremism caters to what many people find psychologically attractive, then aspects of militant-extremist thinking should be at least modestly manifest even in normal-range populations. This hypothesis runs against the common-sense assumption that militant extremists are completely different from other citizens and that they hold bizarre and incomprehensible views.”

To test this hypothesis, the authors administered questionnaires to college students in the U.S. and advanced high school students in Serbia. Each of the 16 militant-extremist themes was represented in the questionnaires by two items. The basic finding?

bq. “When presented with statements that are in fact extracts of militant-extremist thinking, the typical response was somewhere in the range between ‘moderately disagree’ and ‘not sure.’ No one responded in a fashion one would expect from the most prototypical militant extremist: strongly agreeing with all indicator items. But respondents generally failed to strongly disassociate themselves from the sentiments found in these items. Thus the base rate of fanatical thinking patterns in the population does not appear to be low.”

And among the implications?

bq. “Although militant-extremist leaders no doubt play a key role, it is probably not necessary for participants in militant-extremist movements to be brainwashed or severely indoctrinated. All that may be required is an intensification and an orchestration of sentiments and of ‘framings’ that many people are already or at least moderately sympathetic toward.”

All of which puts me in mind of that legendary Ernest Hemingway-Scott Fitzgerald exchange: “You know, the rich are different from you and me”/”They have more money.” Militant extremists may not be so different from the rest of us as we would like to think.

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