New research in the Washington Post by Julie M. Norman and Drew Mikhael from Club de Madrid has shown that in a large number of extreme radicalization cases, ideology doesn’t matter as much as the process by which the initiated comes to find meaning and self-worth within the radicalized community.

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Popular wisdom and some pundits like to point to the “losers” and “pot-heads” that seem to gravitate to violent extremist groups. But it often seems as though they leave it at that; the “losers” just simply drift towards their own “loser” groups, the theory seems to hold.

Indeed, this new research seems to indicate that people who feel socially alienated and without strong social bonds are more likely to join radical extremist groups. Are these people then, “losers”? These extremist groups “promis[e] empowerment and a sense of purpose” for these “lost souls,” while also creating a locus for “perceived grievances.” These grievances could be, say, occupation of home territory in the Middle East, or perhaps feeling a loss of privileged status in an increasingly complicated and diverse world.

However, while Norman and Mikhael offer grievances as a motivating force for joining groups, I believe that one of the most important takeaways from their research is that the extremist groups’ promise of “empowerment and sense of purpose” is accompanied by the permissibility for violence and violent behavior.

In my research and analysis of violent jihadi videos, I determined that many of these outlets were using hero tropes as a means of attracting candidates for recruitment, and these also served to strengthen the resolve of those already in the rank and file. I additionally determined that in some cases they were using a very specific “hero journey” structural progression within the video itself as a coherent storytelling device.

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One of the most critical junctures for the hero comes when he or she leaves the world they have known and enter the “special world,” or the world where the adventure takes place. Mythologist Joseph Campbell called it “crossing the first threshold.” It’s Oz, the Titanic, or Mos Eisley. Hollywood creative and screenwriter, Chris Vogler, distilled the Hero’s Journey into a series of steps for creating compelling stories in film. Vogler calls this point the “leap of faith” where “the adventure begins in earnest” for the hero. This special world operates by rules much different from the one the hero has left. As it turns out, with violent extremist groups, this entry to this special world is not simply a storytelling device, and it has a lot to do with the ability to use violence.

In some of these recruiting videos, when the “hero” recruit leaves their old life behind, they are permitted to do things, like use violence, in ways that they would not have been before. The gory brutality of IS is a salient example. One jihadi recruiting video mimics the video game “Grand Theft Auto,” and the viewer is told that they if they “join up they can do the same things” as depicted in the game animation. Here, we can see that the ideology matters only in how the permissibility for violence is packaged.

But the violence is just part of the special world’s rules, and the hero is on his or her journey for more: test of self, making friends, overcoming obstacles, achieving success. However, the use of violence is the way to gain respect and self-worth within the group, to create meaning in their life. The Post’s article quotes Christian Picciolini, a reformed white nationalist, who said: “I think ultimately people become extremists not necessarily because of the ideology. The ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent. I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.” (My emphasis.) These extremist recruits just want a chance to prove themselves, to reveal themselves as the heroes they already think themselves to be. And they use violence to do it.

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Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

If we re-conceive of our wayward extremists not as “losers” but as human beings working through Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” then their scary status is shifted instead to one of humanity’s fundamental quest for friends, prestige, and “self-actualization.” It is not unusual for violent extremists to perceive of themselves or their actions as “heroic.” The numerous battlefield videos from regions of conflict are proof enough of that. While the idea that the extremists see themselves as heroes might seem anathema to those of us outside of the group, within the group they are valued, respected, and find their identity vis-à-vis the group’s perception of their abilities and actions, which can be violent.

In the comics, superheroes are granted immediate status and respect by virtue of their clothing and insignias. You know them by their symbols, and their exclusive status is literally worn on their bodies. Superheroes are also permitted to use physical violence with impunity, one of their most pervasive features across universes and genres. With the right prism, we might be able to see that to a Neo-Nazi extremist, their symbols are worn on their bodies (perhaps a swastika tattoo), their “okay” sign a winking, secret code ring to the initiate, and their flag the insignia of their “league.” But superheroes occupy a special, imaginary universe, and their violence is not real in books, comics, or movies. We can and should emulate their best values, while letting them destroy Metropolis on screen or the page.

Of course, if these recruits commit crimes – the use of unsanctioned violence is nearly always considered a crime – and do not adhere to national and international laws, then they forfeit their superhero status; they should be held to account.

But, if we can catch them in time, these are potential “superheroes” that need saving, too.

There are many options here that might have some merit, if we start to think in terms of “heroes” and giving them the support they need to use their powers for good, not evil. And this is not an attempt to paint a golden aura on a very complicated issue, but it is a matter of shifting perspective. Instead of seeing video games as the cause of violence and problems, let’s reframe them to create avenues of outreach. We can use comic books and video games to connect vulnerable people in search of a much needed support infrastructure, while also being a release for their violent impulses. For instance, one great resource for military veterans is Stack-Up.org, which uses video game playing and comics books to help veterans with visible and invisible wounds heal, and transition.

There is a way to use these superhero stories to redirect someone who is in a vulnerable and susceptible place to achieve a sense of purpose and self-worth. They need a support infrastructure that helps them feel respected on face value and to cultivate their unique abilities that they can use to help their communities. This new research shows that face-to-face recruitment is invaluable in swaying the vulnerable to join extremist groups. Resources for face-to face support should be allotted to find and “save” those most susceptible to extremist recruiting by reminding them of their value. Then, maybe we can interrupt the process of radicalization, and help them find a “special world” better suited to their particular “super abilities” and become heroes in their home communities.

These are my original ideas and research, copyright Dana Rovang, PhD, 2017. Citations required for use or reprint.

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2 thoughts on “The permissibility of violence as a key to radicalization: “heroes” and “losers”

  1. This is a great breakdown. I wish we had a better idea of how to target people on the edge of radicalisation and bring them back. They absolutely need help and I feel like too often they’re shunted straight into the prison system, which hardly promotes a healthier mindset.

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    1. Thanks. Yes, I think this approach has great potential to target at-risk youth, including those in gangs and other violent groups. We know that Zero Tolerance rules and stricter punishments often have the opposite of the desired effect. Older people might be looking for a change, too. And everyone loves a good redemption story. 🙂

      Speaking of which, do you know of any good redemption stories in the comics? Like someone leaving a group and switching to the side of the good guys? I know a lot of the big bads have their moments (which makes them very interesting and compelling characters), but maybe a lesser known hero? Let me know!

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