The Three Factors That Drive Violent Extremists

BThe attack on the Buffalo supermarket in a terrorist attack was, by some accounts, the second and 202th mass shootings that occurred in the United States. Given Americans’ easy access to weapons, growing political divisions, racism, and rates of mental illness, there will almost certainly be more. Understanding why is this happening is crucial.

After a disaster, it can be difficult to hold a rational discussion. Numerous scholars have demonstrated that in the last few years our political affiliations have become too broad. There are partisan bubbles in our lives, which can be geographically separated. This poses a problem. According to Harvard University political scientist Ryan Enos, “There’s a lot of evidence that any separation between groups has a lot of negative consequences.” We see this in race and religion, he notes, but we also see this in regard to partisanship in the U.S. Our political affiliations have become so entrenched and calcified that it is often possible to guess what will be said in the wake of a tragedy like the recent attack in Buffalo, NY. If the perpetrator of the attack is white, then the right will stress mental illness, while the left will be more concerned with gun control. Problem is, both sides agree. It’s important to discuss both psychosocial variables and gun control policies.

There isn’t much known about the Buffalo shooter at this point, but reporting suggests that he was recently held for a mental health evaluation after making “generalized threats” at his high school. It is crucial to understand the connection between domestic terrorist acts and mental illness. Harvard T.H. We are part of a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health research team. Our goal is to learn how people become radicalized, engage in violence and then deradicalize. The former violent extremists we’ve interviewed—including jihadis, white-identity violent extremists, and others—have complicated stories to tell about their paths into and out of extremism. Some have histories of debilitating mental illness, and they have clear diagnoses reflecting their struggles; others don’t have debilitating histories, and because they haven’t had sustained contact with mental health professionals, they lack the kinds of diagnoses that researchers can use to look for patterns and trends.

Nearly all the formers we’ve interviewed cite underlying social and emotional difficulties; they talk about experiences of racism and persecution (whether real or imagined); they mention poverty and drugs and childhood trauma; they tell stories about exposure to extremist content; and they talk about the meaning and community that they found in their respective extremist movements. They are as critical as the intellectual endorsement of conspiracy theories, beliefs or theories that led to their violent behavior. Debilitating mental illness (one that interferes with daily functioning and demands professional help) may not be part of every extremist’s story, but a struggle with mental health is common among the former extremists we’ve interviewed.

The story of mental health is just one part. Even lone terrorists can adopt or adapt ideologies that are endorsed by groups, networks, or movements. Although these ideologies may not be held in totality, they can be used to give meaning to acts of hateful, pure savagery. Terrorists are increasingly justifying violence with ideologies that combine “far right” views (such as white supremacy) and violent “far left” ones (such as radical environmentalism), and their rationalizations may shift over time. The rationale that the Buffalo shooter used to justify his violence—his wish to “protect” the white race from a perceived threat posed by other races—is a common theme among the network of violent white supremacists we’ve studied. Rationales for political violence often mask deeper fears, such as the fear of being outclassed, outnumbered, or humiliated by some “other.” To be clear, such fears—couched by white supremacists in terms of “white genocide” or the “great replacement” conspiracy theories—are no justification for heinous acts of hate. We may be able find ways to prevent this violence from happening by understanding why so many people support conspiracy theories.

This kind of research yields surprising results. as Karen Stenner have shown that diversity—racial, ethnic, gender, and even moral—is most aversive to those who are innately authoritarian, a latent trait shared by around 30 percent of the population. It isn’t just an American phenomenon; authoritarianism exists all around the globe. If a society is more multicultural or diverse than the authoritarians are capable of bearing, it can become overtly racist and violent. According to polls carried out by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape and his research team, an estimated 21 million people hold two radical beliefs, which, when held together, are defined by the researchers as “insurrectionist”: they believe the election was stolen and that violence is justified to restore Donald Trump to power. Surprisingly, only 10 percent of those 21 million people who share both these views are Democrats. The strongest driver for subscribing to these views is the unfounded fear that “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”

Fears based only on perceived reality are not real and can be used to justify hateful acts. Knowing what Really motivated the Buffalo shooter won’t undo his actions, heal a community, or make families whole. However, it offers a way to support those involved in the prevention of such crimes from ever happening.

Nevertheless, guns are the final part of this story.

The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto was 180 pages long: 81 were dedicated to discussions of race, ideology, and motivation; and 99 were dedicated to a discussion of plans, weaponry, and gear. It has had a complicated relationship with guns. The U.S. also has an extensive gun culture, which can be found both online and offline. The document spent more than half its time explaining his choices regarding weapons, helmets (24 pages), body armor (38 page), which suggests a deep familiarity with the equipment he was discussing. Additionally, the manifesto notes that the shooter radicalized on 4chan, and that he started in the /k/ community (one focused on weapons, where “guns are the primary topic”) before transitioning to /pol/ (a politically incorrect community renowned for its racism) where he “learned the truth” about the threat to white Americans. A gun community became his gateway to ideologically extremist content.

Moreover, the Buffalo shooter notes that he chose to use a gun because (1) “they work” and “there are very few weapons that are easier to use and more effective at killing than firearms” and (2) he imagined that his attack would be followed by a call for gun reform that would rally sympathetic Americans to violence in order to protect their rights. He also writes multiple times about gun control laws. He writes about how to circumvent these laws and get the gun he wants; about using local gun laws for his success; and about manipulating U.S. gun debates to promote his agenda.

It is difficult to find a way forward. We must reject any simplistic explanations that focus only on mental-health, access to dangerous ideologies or guns. This terrible massacre happened because there is not one factor that can explain it. There will never be a single explanation. But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do. Media coverage has focused heavily on the issue of adolescents’ mental health and the dearth of mental-health specialists. The research group found that there is a shortage of clinicians who are willing and able to help those who endorse violence-endorsing ideology. Policy decisions should be supported that improve the number of mental-health practitioners, including those willing and able to deal with such a dangerous population. It is also important to improve our digital literacy, which might have stopped the Buffalo gunman from believing false narratives that he discovered online. We must also reject mainstreaming heinous ideas like replacement theory. We must also advocate for gun control policies which are supported by at least half the American population. All of these policies must be changed to prevent future terrorist attacks.

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