“We, God willing, will continue to fight you and will continue martyrdom operations inside and outside the United States until you abandon your oppression…”
~ Osama Bin Laden
The Islamic Extremists who committed the mass murder in San Bernardino, which killed 14 and injured another 21 people, were a young married couple. They left a six-month-old child at home with one of the terrorist’s mothers. They had equipped themselves and planned for this type of action for an extended period before its execution. It was clearly not a spur of the moment “workplace violence” incident. Rather than blaming guns, terrorists, and the usual suspects, we are going to look at how these violent ideologies are enticing young people, across cultures, religions and social class at unprecedented rates.
The popular media like to present the unsupportable and inaccurate assertion that violence is a human aberration. Unfortunately, many in our society have chosen to accept this inaccuracy because we collectively want to believe that violence is an “evil human” characteristic. If we ignore the facts about violence, it leaves us with no alternative but to focus on the symptoms; guns, radicalization, social disputes, or religion. In reality, violence at the hands of terrorists, cartels, gang members, lone actors, or animals in the wild has some very common traits.
In our closest primate relatives, we see things like raiding and organized group violence as well as what would be categorized as assaults, rapes, and even murders in a variety of animal species. Jane Goodall, Toshida Nishida, and many others have studied this phenomenon at length. The conclusions we can draw from intra-species violence in the animal kingdom is remarkably similar to what we see in the human kingdom:
- First, that intra-species violence is primarily, but not exclusively, a young male trait.
- Second, violence is associated with competition for resources such as territory or food.
- Third, intra-species violence occurs only when there is an imbalance of power; meaning animals rarely if ever attack unless they have a decisive advantage.
Despite the similarities, there is a significant difference in the third characteristic. We see mass murders and suicide bombers undertake attacks that are all but certain to result in their death. This type of self-sacrifice is expected of professional soldiers in some limited circumstances, and traditionally getting them to that point requires significant training. The fact that we see this trait in American mass murderers, Islamic Extremists, Chinese mass murderers, Norwegian nationalists, and the list goes on, lends credence to the notion that these actions appear to be occurring more frequently across cultures. Regardless of why, we don’t see that in any other species but humanity.
What we need to consider is what aspects of our culture have devalued individual lives to the point that they are willing to sacrifice it for causes most of society would consider . The psychopathology behind the creation of a suicide attacker is provides some insight. Robert Papp, Scott Atran, & others have studied the psychology and pathology for more then a decade. More recently the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism has released a report called the Social Psychology of Suicide Terrorism which nicely summarizes the current state of research.
The trends in research run contrary to popular opinions that suicide attackers are religious fanatics, depressed, or mentally unstable. Some noteworthy trends are an affiliation with a small group that transcends all other relationships (this is also called “Isolation”). Secondly, they will likely have been victims, or be affiliated with victims of some “oppressor”; meaning arrested, injured, or had a family member killed injured or arrested at the hands of the “oppressor”. Ultimately, these suicide attackers are not nihilists and are highly committed to the small group of like-minded individuals with which they have affiliated.
“So long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself, we never show any judgment in the matter of living, but always a blind trust and a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction.”
We see somewhat similar traits in mass murders who plan to be killed or commit suicide at the end of their attack. Thomas Joyner wrote in depth about the topic in his book The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide. In it he provides a framework for evaluating these attacks in which the perversion of normal often-positive values leads to extreme behavior. These perversions are only acceptable to a very small subset of the population and are therefore hidden from the public eye to the maximum extent possible. This creates an artificial group identity. More common now is an online identity with a network of supporters where extreme opinions are less personal and more likely to be ignored.
This small subset of the population is specifically attracted to a socially unacceptable ideology; committed to the point that they willingly sacrifice their lives for the subset’s ideals. Not only does the group become increasingly isolated from society, the internal reinforcement of other “similar” members becomes the only reinforcement that matters. Outside the group, the impact of social reinforcement for these acts minimize the deterrence effect of a self-preservation instinct. Basically, media glorification, religious
justification or oppression mantra, no matter how thin, contributes to increasing incident rates.
In-person relationships are rare in mass murder cases like the Columbine shooters, but far more common in terrorists like the San Bernardino shooters. It is not surprising that it is quite difficult to find someone who’s view of the world is twisted in nearly the same manner as your own when you are trying to find accomplices to attack a small subset of the population. Religious extremism provides an avenue of commonality to screen and vet these potential accomplices which probably accounts for the increasing rates.
As we look at the active creation of a suicide attacker, or the development of one with little in-person influence (Self-Radicalization), the recipe is remarkably similar. It typically begins with social isolation. Social isolation causes humans to seek out affiliation with a group that espouses anger or frustration at the perceived causes of their isolation. It is unlikely James Holmes could find fellow radically violent Batman fanatics and had to go it alone. He is however known to have studied other mass murderers, and it is theorized that his fixation became his affiliation. It is very common for mass murderers to obsess over previous mass murderers. Conversely, Islamic Extremism is actively seeking to provide these socially isolated individuals with that affiliation while simultaneously encouraging them to act out.
“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future. Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.”
~ Adolf Hitler
Once an affiliation is made, it becomes almost all encompassing. From there, the potential for social reinforcement (Celebrity status, media coverage, etc.) that glorifies similar individuals is, in some cases adequate to tip the scales in the direction of attack. The key component of this is not suicide nor, that the attacker dies, it is the process by which they are emboldened to act out that is relevant.
The problem that France (and much of Europe) is experiencing with terrorism and violence is that they have failed to integrate the immigrant populations they have admitted. That failure has resulted in enclaves that live in isolation from the mainstream populations. In America similar enclaves have formed by a different mechanism; typically but far from exclusively, low-income housing projects. Regardless of where or why these enclaves exist, the potential for social isolation inside them is extremely high.
We see many factions parading these enclaves as evidence of social inequity. Certainly humans in many places in the world live their entire lives in far worse conditions without complaint. The underlying reason for their anger is not physical competition for resources necessary for survival as we see in the animal kingdom. It is a perception that the social inequality is excessive and that the welfare provided is inadequate. Be it welfare, land taxes, or a caste system, when social inequity becomes excessive, violence is often the result.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
~ John F. Kennedy
Exacerbating the legitimate social concerns of poverty, education, and social classes, Western society is crafting legislation to legitimize the claims of ever smaller and smaller protected classes of “oppressed” people, under the guise of a free and equal society. What is truly concerning is the oppression mantra that now permeates American society, as well as much of Europe and most democratic states. We see large collections of “oppressed” youth expressing their frustration with racial inequality, financial opportunity, or a lack of jobs from places like Ferguson, New York, Paris, and Athens.
The rising tide of disparate groups, pursuing socially isolated agendas has been increasing for centuries. Protecting these ever smaller and smaller subsets of society via legislation is relatively new. As we look across these enclaves, we see a dynamic known as ‘group think’ start to take over at which point the individuals involved become disinterested in contradictory evidence, often to the point that simple facts are ignored. Portraying Michael Brown as a victim vice a violent criminal is a prime example.
“You will notice that the occupy wall street crowds – and the progressives who support them – focus on bringing the wealthy down to, rather then lifting the 99%.”
~ David Harsanyi
While there have been too many cases of racist cops killing black men but the rallying cry for Black Lives Matter being Michael Brown makes its assertions difficult to take seriously. The inability of this organization to differentiate between Michael Brown attacking a police officer and being shot, and Walter Scott being shot six times in the back over a traffic violation, has massively undermined their creditability. Unfortunately, the creditability of the movement doesn’t seem to matter these days. Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Transgender rights, ISIS, or student debt, the common rallying cry to which today’s youth is attracted is not opportunity but oppression.
ISIS ideology stems from Bin Laden’s original claims of the victimhood of all Muslims who’s “riches were being stolen” by “the West”. Hitler used this same “victimhood” argument to rally an entire nation to kill more than 6,000,000 Jews. Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia are more recent well-known examples of mass murder in the name of ending persecution and oppression. When we look at genocides, mass violence, and terrorism, it has consistently been fueled by claims of oppression, coupled with unrealistic expectations and the identification of a scapegoat.
The transition from peace to violence is typically associated with the identification of the “oppressor”. For the Serbs, it was the Croats, for Hitler the Jews, and for Pol Pot, the liberal socialists. From Al-Quaeda to ISIS, Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street and student debt activists these groups have identified their scapegoat; white males with incomes in the top 1%. There are many social movements who have accomplished their goals while not resulting to violence. India’s liberation from British rule is probably the largest.
“Distinguish between real needs and artificial wants and control the latter.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi
Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, LGBT or Student Debt activists’ are not terrorists, and most are simply young people parroting the socialist ideals popularized by our education system in which they have been taught that the government exists to provide for them. That is quite different from government existing to guarantee the rights and opportunities of its citizens.
What these movements lack is a socially inclusive vice a socially divisive means of pursuing their goals. The widespread broad appeal of oppression mantra in our society is concerning. When we tie oppression with socially isolated groups of disenfranchised young males, we have a recipe for violence. This recipe is what spurns young Muslims to join ISIS and lash out just as surely as it fuels others in our society to attack police or their fellow citizens. This toxic concoction is producing violent actors in every society at unprecedented rates.
The largest risk to democratic society is not the terrorists who are actively seeking to tear it down. It is our internal ineffectiveness at incorporating the socially marginalized enclaves into our societies. It provides extreme ideology with access to a large pool of potentially violent actors. As we continue to fan the flames of social discord and victimhood under the guise of equality, we invariably increase the size of those recruiting pools. Victimhood is the polar opposite of empowerment.
~ Patrick Henry