Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Are They Crazy Dangerous, or Just Plain Crazy?

Welcome sign to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX

-- by Sara

One of the hard parts of dealing with the fringe elements of the extremist right is figuring out whether a given group is just harmless garden-variety crazy -- or harboring the special kind of insanity that will lead to acts of local violence or outright domestic terror.

I was noodling around the web doing some research on this recently, and came across a public document from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (that's the CIA with a maple leaf on its hat) that summarized some of the tell-tale signs they look for in discerning who's gone over the edge and around the bend, and might be regarded as a possible threat to domestic security. The signs are simple and elegant -- and, I thought, useful rules of thumb for anyone who's trying to decide if the local ruffians are just disaffected, or heading for serious trouble.

The article is aimed at "the challenge of contending with religious movements whose defining characteristic is an adherence to non-traditional spiritual belief systems;" but pretty much everything they say applies just as accurately to "non-traditional political belief systems" -- such as neo-Nazism and its fetid cousins -- as well. Here's a wrap-up of what CSIS' agents look for in assessing possible trouble ahead.

Marching Toward the Apocalypse
You can tell a lot about a group's danger quotient by taking a quick look at their preferred future. The CSIS document was written in 1999, so the authors had their eyes wide open looking for millennialist groups looking to bring on some variant of the Second Coming in 2000. That threat, of course, has passed; but the general rule still holds. Any group that's insisting that The End Is Near -- that the world is about to end in fire, ice, Rapture, or a Racial Holy War -- has already taken one giant step back from consensus reality. Interestingly: the report notes that "not all foresee a violent turning of the millennium; in fact, many see it as the catalyst for peaceful and harmonious change." Harmonic convergences and Jesus' Thousand-Year Kingdom also apply here. (Note, however: global warming, which is supported by thousands of studies, does not.)

The core point is: people who think this way have given up hope that they can create any kind of fulfilling future within this society, and have retreated to a fantasy future that they find more emotionally compelling. This is important: as I've discussed before, creating a common future is the fundamental goal that keeps societies together; and the shared vision and collective effort this goal inspires are critical to a functioning democracy. When people check out of the reality-based consensus vision entirely and cling beyond the reach of reason to future-based fairy tales -- especially if they start doing it in large numbers -- it's a serious symptom of a democratic society in trouble.

Authoritarian leaders, in particular, specialize in peddling these fantasies. As we'll see, they use them as an early lever that will pry open their followers' minds, allowing them to hijack their moral systems and ultimately control of their actions as well.

A Theology of Violence
The report lays out the small handful of epistemological beliefs that set the stage and provide justification for groups heading toward ideologically-based violence:
Dualism - The belief that the world is fractured into two opposing camps of Good and Evil, which confers a profound significance on small social and political conflicts as evidence of this great cosmic struggle, and which could precipitate a violent response.

The persecuted chosen - Movements view themselves as prophetic vanguards belonging to a chosen elite but feel persecuted by wicked and tyrannical forces, which push the group to make concrete preparations to defend their sacred status.

Imminence - Because movements believe the apocalypse is unfolding before their very eyes, the "last days" are experienced as psychologically imminent and pressure them to take immediate action to ensure their salvation.

Determinism - Since a group devoutly believes it will be the ultimate winner of the final battle, if it believes a catastrophic scenario is being actualized, the group may feel it has no choice but to try to trigger the apocalypse through violence.

Salvation through conflict/enemy eradication - As salvation depends entirely upon direct participation in the apocalyptic struggle, a group is always on the verge of anticipating confrontation, which justifies action to eliminate evil and eradicate enemies.
Authoritarian groups like to set up strong black-and-white boundaries between "us" and "them'" -- and then enforce those boundaries with stringent behavior codes, persecution myths, demonization of outsiders, and stories about the future that promise them ultimate victory. Note that all tribes do this to some degree -- you can see all of this going on at some level in both Republican and Democratic party politics, for example -- because it's an instinctive part of how humans bond. But when a group embraces in-group/out-group thinking to the point of paranoia -- and to where where it's actively anticipating, preparing for, and perhaps even making plans to precipitate the coming end -- you can safely say it's veered into dangerous territory.

The Chosen One
Sociologists have devised dozens of different scales by which one can assess the relative "cultish" nature of a group. One of the recurring traits that's noted on every such scale I've ever seen is that cults always have a charismatic, messianic leader around whom everything else revolves. In fact, these leaders are so central to the whole enterprise that the group will almost always fold after its leader dies or (as frequently happens) is sentenced to a long jail term.

Whether they're on the left (Jim Jones) or the right (Rev. Moon), these leaders all operate in exactly the same way -- a way that is strikingly familiar to those of us already acquainted with Altemeyer's description of high-SDO leaders. They step into the center of their followers' lives, dictating every detail of their existence and co-opting their moral centers. When the followers become convinced that society's rules no longer apply to them because they follow a "higher code" laid down by their leader, the door to antisocial and perhaps even violent action swings wide open. And the leaders themselves, unanswerable to any other authority, often set the prime example for violence by heaping unchecked and escalating abuse on their own followers over time.

Goin' Up To The Country
Of course, you can only live by your own rules for so long before you start drawing unwanted attention to yourself. So, in trying to stay under the radar, these groups often decide to move out of town to some remote corner of the world, buying up large tracts of country property where they can build a compound and be left to "live in peace" -- though, too often, peace is about the last thing that results from this.

According to CSIS, "goin' up to the country" is a watershed moment in the development of a dangerous group. The decision to withdraw from society is often the first overt act of paranoia -- a clear statement that the group believes that mainstream authority is "out to get us," and is strongly asserting the right to live outside the law. Furthermore, in the isolation of the compound, leaders are free to consolidate their arbitrary control over the group's members, without any social counterbalance at all -- "a situation that facilitates violence," as the report observes.

In this hothouse environment, suspicion and dependency flourish; and the unquestioned conviction that the outside world means them harm -- and they must organize and arm themselves for the coming showdown -- takes deep root. The persistence of this pattern is borne out by the huge numbers of rural cult compounds that turned into armed camps in recent American history. Jonestown. Waco. The Aryan Nations' Hayden Lake camp in Idaho. Elizabeth Clare Prophet's attempt to arm her retreat in Montana. The Hare Krishna compound in West Virginia. Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. (The biggest example of all may be the Mormon exodus to Utah, where Brigham Young's growing paranoia led him to order the Mountain Meadows Massacre.) When a charismatic leader moves his or her group en masse from the city to the country, that group has crossed a Rubicon beyond which the likelihood of violence increases dramatically.

When all four of these factors are in play -- emotional investment in a fantasy future, adoption of an apocalyptic belief system, total dominance by a charismatic leader, and withdrawal and isolation from the world -- the CSIS report indicates that you're looking at group that is actively assembling the means, the motive, and the intent required to commit violent acts against the outside world. From this point, we're not unreasonable to ask: Where is this going? What could set them off? How and when might the shooting begin?

The pattern of proximate events that propel these groups toward actual acts of violence will be the subject of the next post.

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