Friday, June 13, 2003

What motivates terrorists?

Mark Pitcavage, who is the the ADL's director of fact-finding, also continues to operate the old Militia Watchdog listserv, which shares info about right-wing extremists (Mark in fact was the founder of the old Watchdog before the ADL hired him). He's also one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet about right-wing extremists. He recently posted this to the list, and gave me permission to reproduce it here in full. So I will:
Brian Levin and Mark Potok have both made comments recently about some Eric Rudolph commentators who have played down or dismissed Rudolph's ideology. Some of these have been egregious, such as the person who suggested Rudolph wanted simply to be a "bomber" and didn't have any real ideology.

This situation is not limited to the Eric Rudolph incident. In the past year or so, I have noticed a distressing number of times when commentators to the media, trainers of law enforcement officers, and others have significantly downplayed the role that ideology/theology plays in motivating extremists to commit criminal acts.

Typically, there are two forms of this downplaying:

1) It was not "ideology" that motivated the person in question, but "psychology." The person in question is not really passionate about the ideology--he or she simply became involved with an ideology to feed psychological needs and those same psychological motivations were what 'really' drove the person to commit criminal acts.

2) It was not "ideology" that motivated the person in question, but rather the individual's criminal tendencies. The person was someone who *wanted* to commit crimes (murder, violence, fraud, what have you), and the ideology was merely a convenient excuse to allow the individual to act on those criminal impulses. Typically, the way this is expressed is: "If he hadn't joined X, he would have been a normal criminal."

Now, I think it is clear that people join extremist groups/movements for a variety of reasons, and many of them may be psychological. Furthermore, they may well have psychological reasons to commit criminal acts. Similarly, there may be violent people who join an extremist group because it can give them an "accepted" outlet for their violence, or con artists who join an extremist group because it allows them to get money.

However, I think it is crucial to understand that, first of all, those psychological/criminal primary motivations do not always hold true. For many who get involved in these movements, it is the ideology that is the primary motivator. For example, in the 1990s, time and time again people were getting arrested (often on very serious charges), when they had never before had a criminal record. It is very difficult to argue that a 65 year old man with no (prior) criminal record joined an extremist group in order to have an excuse to act on criminal tendencies. Sixty five years is a long enough time for those tendencies to have manifested themselves in other ways! The criminal acts occurred only *after* the person had been exposed to, and had deeply accepted, an extreme ideology.

Secondly, even when psychological and/or criminal motivations play a role, they do not remain unaffected by the ideology. Merely accepting a new ideology can change one's psyche, for example. And getting involved with an extreme ideology can greatly change prior criminal motivations that one may have had. One great example of this can be seen with the sovereign citizen movement, which routinely generates huge scams and frauds from its midst. If criminal motivations were really the dominant factor in such schemes, then when such people are caught, their rational reaction should be to "escape" with as little harm as possible--hire a lawyer, mount the best defense possible, see if you can get away with anything. However, time and time again, what we saw (and continue to see) instead is a "crash and burn" reaction. Such people tend to defend themselves, using "sovereign citizen" arguments, as well as courtroom tactics guaranteed to alienate judge and jury alike, with the result, that they "crash and burn," getting more convictions and longer sentences than would otherwise have resulted with a "normal" defense.

Elizabeth Broderick of Palmdale, California (the "lien queen"), may be a good example of this. She may well have started her bogus money order empire with greed as the primary motivator (she had previously been involved with other schemes), but by the time she came out of it, the ideology was clearly affecting her at least as much. She defended herself, used sovereign citizen arguments, managed to P*ss off pretty much everybody in the courtroom, and got a lengthy prison sentence as a result.

Or take Linda Lyon Block and George Sibley. These two people (who killed a police officer in 1993) were on *death row*, but fired their lawyers and mounted a "missing thirteenth amendment" defense. Block has been executed. Death was on the line there.

I don't think you can ever dismiss the ideology/theology, and I think that even to downplay it is a big mistake. Ideology/theology really can and does play a significant motivating factor in criminal extremism and terrorism. If we ignore that, we do so at our own peril.

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