Monday 16 September 2019

The road to radicalism is a personal one

A woman lights a candle near the Cosa Nostra restaurant in Paris (AP)
A woman lights a candle near the Cosa Nostra restaurant in Paris (AP)

Patricia Casey

The world is shocked by the Isis attacks on Paris. But this is the culmination of other attacks in the previous two weeks - that of the downing of the Russian jet in the Sinai desert and the explosion in Beirut two weeks ago, killing over 40 people.

The speed, the numbers (over 500 dead) and their spread (three countries in two continents) is truly terrifying. Finding words to condemn the cruelty and crassness of what has happened is challenging. People doing normal things are suddenly targeted. But as Greg Gutfeld, the American political satirist and TV host, said last week: "Save the solemn pronouncements, we're long past lit candles."

And he's right. We may use all the epithets in the world to express our horror at what's happened, but that won't change anything or prevent the next attack. Action is what's needed, but the question is: what should inform this?

Clearly there are social, geo-political and religious dimensions to terrorism and these are the dominant elements being discussed at present. The open borders of Europe to migrants are one such factor facilitating the mass movement of peoples. Among them, there are likely to be terrorists.

Another issue is the radicalisation of Muslim youth. What is driving this?

The attacks in Paris would appear to have been executed by natives, people born and brought up in that country. Some will look to France's history of importing workers from North Africa after the Second World War and paying them near destitution level wages, leading to their ghettoization.

More recently, banning their religious emblems, such as the wearing of the burka, may also have rankled.

Are these shooters the children of poverty-stricken migrants, residing in the banlieue of France's larger cities, who have now become alienated? And what contorted rationalisations do they use to justify violence in the name of God, a violence that has been condemned by devout Muslims internationally?

Finally, we must consider the make-up of individual terrorists. This element has received a lot of attention from psychologists through the years, and it is the one with the easiest answers.

It is tempting to assume that the perpetrators of such mass atrocities are insane or psychopathic. Words such as "lunacy" and "insanity" have riddled the commentary in media over the past week. This was a strongly held view in the 70s and 80s. There may be some single-handed terrorists who have been any or all of these things, but this categorisation does not apply to most of those engaging in terrorist acts.

With over 30 years of profiling research into terrorism, we now understand that their psychological profiles are no different from non-terrorists and the prevalence of mental illness is no higher either.

Indeed, if terrorists were psychopathic, or otherwise mentally ill, the level of coordination and orchestration would be much less terrifying than what we have witnessed in the past three weeks, since those with mental health difficulties are often disorganised or unfocused, making it easier to rout them.

Clark McCauley, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, believes that the trajectory into radicalisation and terrorism is a personal one, not due to pathology, but inextricably linked to the personal narrative of the individual. It's not that you wake up and suddenly decide to do this for a living. It is rooted in the person's own world view, whereby the ideals that they hold are seen as worth killing, and/or dying, for. These ideals are personal and transcendent. The cause gives meaning to their life and to their death, which will not have had a noble purpose. And this is where alienation and disenfranchisement emerge as political forces. Sociology meets politics!

Many leave their community, their family and friends and, as an almost devotional act, identify totally with the group. They will be indoctrinated and fanatical. The men of action carry out the acts, the strategists plot and plan, but all will be determined.

It is interesting that these elements of terrorism were represented in the 2013 TV series Spiral: States of Terror, which was set in Paris. The dynamic within the group, their isolation from any outside influence, living in a mobile commune and the differences between the action men and the strategists, were all played out in their terrific series.

Sadly, fiction and reality have collided in Paris and in the rest of Europe. It is now a much more dangerous place than it was when this fictional drama was conceived. And its citizens - you, me and everybody else - are living in a state of fear that has not been experienced since a previous fanatic tried to rule Europe. His name was Adolf Hitler.

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