Title art by Stroud Carrier.
The below essay was a reflection on a seminar about small group communication and extremism. I did not intend to publish this to my site, however, given recent events, I feel like I must.
While I’ve not committed any thing that could be deemed “terroristic,” I, too, can admit to participating in behaviors that, on an individual level I was uncomfortable with, but was able to do “because everyone else was.” Way back in my early days, this mainly constituted things like bullying or picking fights with members of opposing groups in school, but even today I can see the warning signs in political and religious groups I have associates within. It is easy as a straight, white, cisgendered, male to view the actions of out-groups as terrorist actions and those within my in-group as “defense,” or “he was just going along with it” or, my least favorite, “boys will be boys.” All of these excuses are emblematic of an in-group and out-group mentality that is dangerous to society. It’s with this in mind that, instead of viewing terror as a faceless, enemy combatant, that I will be looking into the terrorist actions committed by people who identify similar to me — white extremists.
As Townshend points out early on in his book, defining terrorism is hard because “‘terrorist’ is a description that has almost never been voluntarily adopted by any individual or group. It is applied to them by others...” Because of this, it is rare when a white person commits a violent act to make a statement on race, ideology, or politics, that it is branded as terrorism. However, when a Muslim does, it’s quick to be branded as such. We see this with press reports on the shooting in Charleston, SC committed by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine people at a historic black church. In the beginning it was only reported as a mass shooting, however as Dean Obeidallah argued, Roof’s actions clearly fit in line with the legal definition of a terrorist (Obeidallah 2015).
Roof is not an exception to the rule, nor is he the norm. Nonetheless, there is a growing problem of white, right-wing extremism in America. In February of 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented an increase in hate groups for the second consecutive year. Anti-Muslim groups saw the sharpest increase, growing from just 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. Related to this, “The latest FBI statistics show that hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67 percent in 2015.” The Southern Poverty Law Center ties this to a radicalization sparked by the Trump campaign (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017). It’s difficult to argue that Trump is solely responsible for this. While he may be a charismatic leader, and his rhetoric may encourage such actions, it’s the groups themselves that are responsible for radicalizing the youth in their communities and inciting such violence.
SOCIAL IDENTITY PERSPECTIVE
It can be difficult for us to understand what turns someone to commit such heinous acts — especially when they hold similar identities as our own. In 2014, Frank Meeink, a former Neo-Nazi explained his radicalization, “the adults have left me to fend for myself now, and these guys are telling me the secrets of the world. So then, I really started buying into it. By the time I was 14... I one hundred percent believed in this movement.” Meeink grew up poor, had an abusive step-father, and attended a school that was predominantly black and was picked on. So, when he found a group that was willing to let him in, he practically jumped at the chance. Meeink continues to draw parallels between Skinheads, gang bangers, and even the Tea Party Patriots, “we are ego maniacs with no self-esteem. That’s what we are. That’s why I have to force my will on you” (David Pakman Show, 2014). He discusses how extremist groups recruit members by preying on narcissistic people, as further illustrated by Horgan in Psychology of Terrorism, quoting Post:
“Individuals with particular personality dispositions are drawn to terrorism. A feature in common among many terrorists is a tendency to externalise, to seek out outside sources of blame for personal inadequacies...The terrorists [Bollinger] interviewed demonstrated a feature characteristic of individuals with narcissistic and borderline personalities — splitting. He found they had split off the de-valued parts of themselves and projected them onto the establishment” (Horgan 2014, page 55).
The desire to belong to groups is wired into the human psyche. When a person, especially one who has been disenfranchised, has an opportunity to a group, it is natural they will begin to conform. This happens through a process under Self-Categorization theory known as “depersonalization.” This occurs when an individual begins attribute characteristics of the group to their own identities. This is a dangerous process because of prototyping — or the tendency to identify with perceived traits based on preconceived stereotypes. By interpreting the stereotypes as norms, they became re-enforced and polarized over time as newer group members join (Abrams 2005). In Psychology of Terrorism, Horgan quotes Jeff Victoroff, “terrorists are ‘psyologically extremely heterogeneous. Whatever his stated goals and group identity, every terrorist, like every person, is motivated by his own complex of psychosocial experiences and traits” (page 80). Abrams and Victoroff have identified depersonalization as a common practice among people joining small groups, including extremist ones.
This is the lens that the social identity perspective views the role of small groups in people. This perspective also states, “a group exists to the extent that its members have a sense of shared identity.” While this perspective is used to understand inter-group dynamics, it can also be applied to intra-group dynamics. Reachers studying groups in this manner can identify processes like depersonalization and self-categorization and how these influence the members to take on desired characteristics as a part of their identities. What’s more, and why this lens is so important to the study of race-based extremism, the social identity theory as focused on issues like prejudice and how it impacts group decisions (Poole et al.).
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the social identity perspective can also be used to explain inter-group relationships. It further posits “group processes are driven by inter- and intragroup social comparisons through which members strive to clarify their group’s distinctiveness, positivity, and validity.” The beliefs about “out-groups” are important to an extremist group because it is how they convince group members of who is the enemy. It provides a guide for group decisions and a target of those decisions. It proves that belonging to the group makes the member special, a force for good — albeit subjective — and that the group needs to exist (Abrams 2005).
Social Identity Perspective is a great way to understand the Roofs and Meeinks of the world. In many cases, far-right extremist groups preyed on the vulnerabilities of their members. They provided an identity to these men and women and welcomed into the fray. Understanding the identity of these individuals will be paramount in any attempt to disrupt their group or actions.
It is shocking to realize how easy it can be for someone to become radicalized. It doesn’t take much. Unfortunately, countering this radicalization can be harder. Reedy’s disruption framework, while mainly applied to militaristic counterterrorism activities, can still be just as effectively applied here. In the framework, there are three kinds of actions that can be taken to disrupt extremist organizations: repression, manipulation, and persuasion. Repression tactics are usually heavy-handed actions that disrupt the flow of resources or information. This can be accomplished by killing, arrest, or impeding finances. When power and resources are interrupted, degradation of the group occurs. Manipulation, through infiltration or co-option, leads to dysfunction within a group, emphasizing the dissensus and contributing to splintering. Finally, the goal of persuasion is to lead the group towards a path of moderation (Reedy et. al).
Especially with regard to manipulation and persuasion, understanding the individual and group’s social identities is important. It is how external forces can craft messaging through propaganda to break up the group or moderate the group. We see this in the real world, being applied by the nonprofit, Life After Hate — an organization dedicated to de- radicalizing individuals and working with communities who are suffering from radicalized members. Life After Hate was founded in 2011 by a group of “former members of the American violent far-right extremist movement.” They provide outreach and education to people in order to support them as they leave the life behind. While they don’t engage in repression, they do engage in manipulation and persuasion. Through their outreach program ExitUSA, they can communicate directly with skinheads who have begun to express dissent with their organization and provide them information to manipulate their opinions and help them escape. Likewise, they provide similar information to community leaders who are struggling with a radical, far-right movement at home (Life After Hate). While Life After Hate doesn’t participate in repression, the federal, state, and local governments do this by arresting leaders and rank-and-file members, disrupting financial and communication networks along the way.
In his interview, Meeink says, “in my core, I did not believe I was an evil person, I still believed that the white race was what I was sent to defend.” This quote sums up the power that social identity plays on these people. Meeink, despite kidnapping and committing many other crimes, Meeink identified himself in a positive manner. He thought he was doing what was right. Many members of all kinds extremist groups feel similarly. Preventing these groups from infecting more communities will require in-depth knowledge of each individual and group’s identity. From there, it will require precisely targeted strategies to focus on the issues unique to each person.
Abrams, D., Hogg, M. A., Hinkle, S., & Otten, S. (2005). The Social Identity Perspective on Small Groups. Theories of Small Groups: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 99-138. doi: 10.4135/9781483328935.n4
David Pakman Show . (2014, April 23). Retrieved August 07, 2017, from https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=622W6e_uVh4
Horgan, J. (2014). The Psychology if Terrorism (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Life After Hate: HOME. (n.d.). Retrieved August 07, 2017, from https://www.lifeafterhate.org/ Obeidallah, D. (2015, June 18). Get Real: Charleston Church Shooting Was Terrorism. Retrieved August 07, 2017, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/get-real-charleston-church-shooting- was-terrorism
Poole, M. S., Hollingshead, A. B., Mcgrath, J. E., Moreland, R., & Rohrbaugh, J. (n.d.). Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Small Groups. Theories of Small Groups: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 1-20. doi:10.4135/9781483328935.n1
Reedy, J., Gastil, J., & Gabbay, M. (2013). Terrorism and Small Groups. Small Group Research, 44(6), 599-626. doi:10.1177/1046496413501892
Southern Poverty Law Center. (2017, February 15). Hate groups increase for second consecutive year as Trump electrifies radical right. Retrieved August 07, 2017, from https:// www.splcenter.org/news/2017/02/15/hate-groups-increase-second-consecutive-year-trump- electrifies-radical-right
Townshend, C. (2011). Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.