Mar. 28th, 2016

q_w_z: (Clouseau)
Many people jump to the conclusion that only psychopaths or sadists—individuals entirely different from us—could ever strap on a suicide vest or wield an executioner's sword. But sadly that assumption is flawed. Thanks to classic studies from the 1960s and 1970s, we know that even stable, well-adjusted individuals are capable of inflicting serious harm on human beings with whom they have no grievance whatsoever. Stanley Milgram's oft-cited “obedience to authority” research showed that study volunteers were willing to administer what they believed to be lethal electric shocks to others when asked to do so by a researcher in a lab coat. Fellow psychologist Philip Zimbardo's (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment revealed that college students assigned to play the part of prison guards would humiliate and abuse other students who were prisoners.

These studies proved that virtually anyone, under the right—or rather the wrong—circumstances, could be led to perpetrate acts of extreme violence. And so it is for terrorists. From a psychological perspective, the majority of adherents to radical groups are not monsters—much as we would like to believe that—no more so than were the everyday Americans participating in Milgram's and Zimbardo's investigations. As anthropologist Scott Atran notes, drawing on his long experience of studying these killers, most are ordinary people. What turns someone into a fanatic, Atran explained in his 2010 book Talking to the Enemy, “is not some inherent personality defect but the person-changing dynamic of the group” to which he or she belongs.

For Milgram and Zimbardo, these group dynamics had to do with conformity—obeying a leader or subscribing to the majority view. During the past half a century, though, our understanding of how people behave both within and among groups has advanced. Recent findings challenge the notion that individuals become zombies in groups or that they can be easily brainwashed by charismatic zealots. These new insights are offering a fresh take on the psychology of would-be terrorists and the experiences that can prime them toward radicalization.
In particular, we are learning that radicalization does not happen in a vacuum but is driven in part by rifts among groups that extremists seek to create, exploit and exacerbate. If you can provoke enough non-Muslims to treat all Muslims with fear and hostility, then those Muslims who previously shunned conflict may begin to feel marginalized and heed the call of the more radical voices among them. Likewise, if you can provoke enough Muslims to treat all Westerners with hostility, then the majority in the West might also start to endorse more confrontational leadership. Although we often think of Islamic extremists and Islamophobes as being diametrically opposed, the two are inextricably intertwined. And this realization means that solutions to the scourge of terror will lie as much with “us” as with “them.”
In short, terrorism is all about polarization. It is about reconfiguring intergroup relationships so that extreme leadership appears to offer the most sensible way of engaging with an extreme world. From this vantage, terrorism is the very opposite of mindless destruction. It is a conscious—and effective—strategy for drawing followers into the ambit of confrontational leaders. Thus, when it comes to understanding why radical leaders continue to sponsor terrorism, we need to scrutinize both their actions and our reactions. As editor David Rothkopf wrote in Foreign Policy after the Paris massacres last November, “overreaction is precisely the wrong response to terrorism. And it's exactly what terrorists want.... It does the work of the terrorists for the terrorists.”
Currently counterterrorism efforts in many countries give little consideration to how our responses may be upping the ante. These initiatives focus only on individuals and presume that radicalization starts when something happens to undermine someone's sense of self and purpose: discrimination, the loss of a parent, bullying, moving, or anything that leaves the person confused, uncertain or alone. Psychologist Erik Erikson noted that youths—still in the process of forming a secure identity—are particularly vulnerable to this kind of derailment [see “Escaping Radicalism,” by Dounia Bouzar, on page 40]. In this state, they become easy prey for radical groups, who claim to offer a supportive community in pursuit of a noble goal.
Outside of our prison experiment, the story goes something like this: Radical minority leaders use violence and hate to provoke majority authorities to institute a culture of surveillance against minority group members. This culture stokes misrecognition, which drives up disidentification and disengagement from the mainstream. And this distancing can make the arguments of the radicals harder to dismiss. Our point is that radical minority voices are not enough to radicalize someone, nor are the individual's own experiences. What is potent, though, is the mix of the two and their ability to reinforce and amplify each other.

Fueling Terror: How Extremists Are Made - Scientific American

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