As election fever heats up, and hateful things are said, it's worth noting that at last count, the United States recorded over 1000 groups committed to hatred, an increase from just over 600 a decade ago. In the US, just as in Canada and other western democracies, there are thousands of individuals being monitored by internal security forces for fear they will become violent. Many are eco-activists. Many more belong to paramilitaries with some unsophisticated concept of anarchy or religious zeal, whether expressed as driving without a license, not paying taxes, or organizing through their congregations to turn their country into a religious state. The most watched, it seems, are religious fundamentalists, frequently young men, who feel dispossessed and silenced. Sometimes poor and unemployed, but not always, there are no simple ways to categorize the zealots who turn violent, whether Christian fundamentalists who kill doctors, or Islamic militants who carry out fatwa's and kill those who offend a narrow interpretation of their religion.
It is difficult to categorize them all, but increasingly, I have been invited to speak on panels that address homegrown terrorism as we struggle to control these individuals. There is a feeling that the problem is part psychological (the terrorists are psychologically disturbed) and part sociological (the terrorists are caught up in a social movement akin to a cult). Both explanations are valid, but we could also look at this from the perspective of maladaptive coping, positive deviance, and resilience. When we feel like our identity is threatened, and we have lost a sense of coherence (our life has no meaning), we can be motivated to find purpose and meaning in socially abhorrent ways.
The Toronto 18 were a group of loosely affiliated individuals who intended to blow up the Canadian Parliament and behead the Prime Minister, among other acts of homegrown terror. Fortunately, they showed little sophistication regarding their purpose and were caught. They were, however, certainly enamoured with the idea of becoming important, of showing their individual and collective power in a context where they had experienced the sting of racial oppression as Moslems. Not all, however, had lived in the shadows of extreme prejudice, the kind we would expect to push someone to violent extremism. In fact, more than anything else, it is the middle class, reasonably well acculturated, often country-born individual who is being recruited into terrorist organizations. It's this pattern that most confuses the police. There is little to explain their extremism, except perhaps a malaise that comes with cultural conformity and the deep-seated desire to do something to get noticed and more respect.
When Major Nidal Malik Hasan took a gun and began shooting his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, we had to wonder whether a life of racial slurs was enough to tip an otherwise well-functioning member of society over the edge to violence. But then, if one is unstable and insecure enough, then doesn't the thought of becoming a very powerful individual through an act of terror make sense? In almost every case of homegrown terror, terrorists, whatever their religious or political creed, are striving for both a powerful construction of their identity as the "other" and feelings of self-efficacy, or personal power, that comes with the expression of that identity.
Add to this dangerous psychological path the means to achieve dramatic ends, and the perception of one's actions being part of a great social cause, and one gets a terrorist. Not all terrorists, however, are motivated in the same way. It has been shown that while there are individuals closely aligned with international terrorist organizations, and to some extent individuals who are organized into copycat organizations modelled on these extremist groups, the most difficult individuals for police to monitor and prevent from committing acts of terror are the unaffiliated loners who think of themselves as agents of political and social control. Their mental stability may be questioned, but their potential for lethal action, from school and community shootings (think of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway) is very much assured.
A perspective of resilience may offer very little if we narrowly think of resilience as the individual's path to successful development. However, a broader, more socially grounded understanding of coping under stress can help us understand what the homegrown terrorist is looking for. Power, a positive identity, relationships, a legacy, social justice (as they perceive it), and fame, come with acts of terror. Our challenge is how to meet such needs and offer a viable substitute to terror that provides a potential terrorist with an equally powerful means for self-expression.
The truth is that we seldom can. Monitoring by the police and even incarceration are likely the few ways we have to stop this kind of terrorism. But institutionalization can actually reinforce a terrorist's mindset as surely as it can serve to strengthen the resolve of those fighting for more legitimate goals of social justice (think Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for 27 years).
Some have tried to provide terrorists with a form of re-education, providing them with a 'counternarrative'. In the case of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists, this can mean a more tolerant interpretation of scripture. It is the same for eco-terrorists who are encouraged to understand the impact their actions have on the financial and social stability of the people living in the communities they terrorize.
It doesn't always work. Underneath it all, a good understanding of resilience suggests that until we provide both a counternarrative and opportunities to express one's self as a powerful person, a commitment to a different form of self-expression will not hold. Is it any wonder that the freedom fighters, from those in the United States who chose to die at the Alamo or those who fought the civil war 200 years ago, to those in African, Asian and South American states today, become the political leaders following the defeat of those who oppressed them? Individuals who seek power and a well-crafted identity don't give up that desire just because they win a long fight. They are hardwired to want something that fighting, and later government, brings them. The most well-balanced become great inspiring leaders; the worse become thugs in the guise of elected members of their state governments (think Vladimir Putin).
What that leaves us with is a dangerous situation in which there are individuals who feel angry and lost and are looking for some way to know they count. Give them a perception of a social movement that they can join and the means to commit violence, and unfortunately, homegrown terrorism becomes a viable means to feeling psychologically and socially complete.