When one radicalises to the type of violence we saw last week in Christchurch, five factors are usually present. A crisis of identity is the first which typically explains the attacker’s search for significance; this is usually preceded by a personal crisis like a divorce or death in the family. Tarrant experienced both of these (parents divorce); however it was the death of his father in adulthood that was closer to the attack itself. It is easy to confuse this search for significance with narcissism as they look very similar, however through the perverse hyper moral lens of the attacker this act gives deep meaning to his life.
Secondly, social interaction with either the ideas or a charismatic recruiter is usually observed, in this case it appears to have happened online, although more information might surface. In many terrorist incidents it is later revealed that the attacker had contact with a group or individual.
Thirdly, grievances are a continual source of sometimes legitimate reasons for political activism — this where it can become profoundly uncomfortable to the outside observer. Think of the young idealistic Muslim who hears that human rights abuses by the United States at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, after a widely condemned invasion, was among the grievances expressed by the latest jihadist’s attack. A legitimate concern acted upon in a completely illegitimate way. Now take Tarrant’s central grievance of anti-immigration, in 2016 as many as 1,200 women were reported to have been sexually assaulted by up to 2000 men, newly arrived migrants to various German cities. The EU border agency Frontex also reported that up to 60% of these arrivals were “economic migrants with no right to asylum”. An important distinction because opening the border in this way dispenses with any notion of priority for legitimate asylum seekers fleeing persecution, violence, war and or even genocide (think Yazidis). Again, a legitimate concern for political action but acted upon in a completely illegitimate way.
Fourthly, the ideology is paramount. In this case the ideological foundation with which Tarrant subscribed to was white nationalism. Extremist ideology is rigid, black and white and leaves no room for nuance. White nationalism and jihadism both sit on the far right of the political spectrum; this can often be confusing as when we think of far-right ideology we only think of neo-Nazis or white nationalists however both share much in common. What we know about those that sit right of centre is that are more likely to share personality traits, such as they are more likely to be easily disgusted thus are drawn to the notion of purity, they have a need for closure which includes a preference for order, structure and certainties — an intolerance for ambiguity. They also like to make sharper in-group and out-group distinctions and creating boarders and boundaries. These are merely tendencies and by themselves often precede the values of a functioning society with viewpoint diversity; however it is these tendencies that get hijacked for the terrorist cause given the right psychological, social and ideological stimuli.
Lastly, a radicalisee need to exhibit epistemic failure — an inability to think critically about the new information (the ideology) that has been delivered to them, usually at a vulnerable point in their lives during a cognitive opening. Put simply, the individual has an underdeveloped toolkit for discerning bullshit and once the ideology becomes part of the individual’s new identity any evidence that disconfirms the ideology is rejected. This is known more generally as confirmation bias and usually has a list of other biases that go along for the ride. For example, evidence or arguments against the notion of the supremacy of white Western culture such as the fact that “whiteness” is any sort of basis in which we order our societies is false and is antithetical to Western values. Western culture and values are based upon individual human rights making no distinction in relation to one’s ethnic background. The individual is paramount and the individual has innate rights, rights which Tarrant took away last Friday. Whiteness which Tarrant links with Western culture is not just misappropriated but diametrically opposed. His attack was meant to be in defence of a culture that he appears powerfully confused about. One wonders if Tarrant had read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, at a pivotal point in adolescence and was confronted with the overwhelming evidence on how culture’s evolved unevenly but also with no relationship whatsoever to ethnic superiority, whether this could have fostered a critical mind.
Unfortunately many of us experience personal trauma, get caught up in the wrong crowd or search for an identity, particularly during adolescence. Therefore what is critical to remember in our efforts to combat extremism is not to silence debate. We cannot shut down those that express differences of opinion on complex or controversial issues like immigration or Western foreign policy. It is by first acknowledging legitimate grievances and hearing arguments against our own position that allows the erosion of rigid ideologies that some find captivating due to social and psychological reasons. Furthermore, it is by engaging with counter arguments and disconfirming evidence that allows one to flex the muscle of epistemic strength.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shane Satterley is a PhD Candidate in Griffith University’s School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science.
Shane’s research has focused on radicalisation to Islamism and counter radicalisation programs and policies. His current research focuses on Islamism and jihadism and the link to education along with its implications for Australia.
Shane has a Bachelor of Arts in Security, Terrorism, and Counter Terrorism studies, Masters of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, a Graduate Diploma in Criminological Research Studies and a Master of Arts (Research).
Twitter: Shane Mayhem