The Extremist Tango

The designation of the mass murder in El Paso as an act of domestic terrorism was necessary and correct. Far from a random act of violence, this incident had a political ideology at its core, and the perpetrator, having been radicalized in that ideology, decided to use violence to further not just his interests, but the broader, long-term aims of fellow ideological travelers. This fraternity of extremists is now more easily connected than ever before thanks to the Internet, and the open and closed discussion fora within which people stew in like-minded juices, further radicalizing and reinforcing one another.

Sadly, it has taken the massacres in Christchurch, Poway and now El Paso to shine a bright light on this dangerously alive and intensifying American – and global – trend. Whether referred to as violent white nationalism, white power movements, identitarianism or other monikers, adherents share beliefs in the separation of people according to race, ethnicity and creed, rejecting the arc of liberal progress seen over decades. While this trend is evident in Europe as well, in the US the prevalence of guns, including weapons of war, makes this a uniquely volatile formula. An individual can quickly decide it is his (it’s almost always his) time – perhaps even duty – to further the cause by turning thoughts and words into violent action.

As resistant as some observers and policymakers are to draw parallels between this form of ideological violence and the ideological violence seen in the militant jihad preached and practice by ISIS, Al Qaeda and their offshoots, many of the elements are similar. Each attracts individuals unable to find meaning, purpose and belonging in their lives and society, instead seeking a new worldview based on order, rules and lived belief. Each groom adherents through a combination of real-world and online efforts. And, paradoxically, each hold strikingly similar views in terms of hatred toward “western elites,” women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and shared life in a civic, secular society grounded in individual rights rather than an essentialist and tribal collectivism.

These particular extremist worldviews can also be understood as two sides of the same coin. As such, they build on and feed one another in a tit-for-tat process alternately described as reciprocal radicalization or coterminous extremism. ISIS-inspired chat rooms can be expected to point to these attacks as more evidence of the onset of a global values war, calling for new recruits and inspiring the rank and file. In turn, the far-right extremists will do the same, creating violent ideological conflict spirals that in the worst case lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. 8chan and its ilk (shutting down any one site will lead to whack-a-mole ingenuity in finding new online spaces) can be expected to see a boost in traffic, from the innocently curious, to the morbidly fascinated, to the searching vulnerable.

For those seeking simple answers to both phenomena, in the best of times there are none, making prescriptions in the current polarized (and polarizing) moment seemingly Quixotic. Effective prevention requires a combination of strong moral leadership (to date only demonstrated consistently by New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern) and social resilience through policies in support of the education (grounded in critical thinking and media literacy), economic opportunity and social justice needed to give people a sense of vision and purpose in their community, society and state. In the absence of such implemented and lived policies and shared vision, the extremists will have the upper hand in offering a sense of active purpose that mainstream societies at large have failed to deliver.

Dr. Perry’s edited volume, Extremism and Violent Extremism in Serbia: 21st Century Manifestations of an Historical Challenge was published by Ibidem Press/Columbia University Press in 2019.