Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Crazy Dangerous, The Last: Running Up to the Edge

-- by Sara

Part I
Part II

The world has no shortage of paranoid in-groups who think the world is out to get them. But not every authoritarian political or religious group that starts down that long country road toward becoming crazy dangerous ends up in Waco or Ruby Ridge. According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, groups heading toward violence often telegraph their intentions well in advance; and the later parts of the trip follow specific, often highly identifiable patterns. A community or agency that's aware of these patterns may be able to spot gathering trouble, and step in in time to head it off. This third and final post, which combines a section of a public CSIS report with observations of my own, outlines the warning signs that may indicate that a group is done moving through the early and middle stages, and is now actively heading toward an imminent confrontation.

Increasingly violent rhetoric. This isn't news to Orcinus readers, who are well aware that strong words are often a rehearsal -- a promise of strong action to come. But the CSIS further verifies that those watching worrisome groups need to keep their ears open, and listen carefully for a fundamental shift in rhetoric. There's early-stage rhetoric, which establishes the lines of conflict by repeatedly identifying the group's enemies, and asserting their essential evilness. And then there's the more serious later stage, when the talk turns overtly eliminationst, and the group starts expressing its clear intention to eradicate those perceived enemies. When they start shifting to the second stage, it's a sign that they may have accepted the need for violent action in their own minds. It's been justified to the point where they may be actively planning something.

When a group that was once talking about peace, love, unity, and a Better World To Come starts talking about how it's only going to happen by force -- and only after all their enemies are eliminated in an orgy of violence -- they've crossed a threshold beyond which actual violence becomes much more likely. As Dave has told us often, when people start imagining and talking about violent action, they are setting the psychological and social stage for violence. The CSIS believes that this shift in rhetoric should never be ignored.

Identifying enemies with the state. It's a truism of conspiracy theories that sooner or later, no matter who your bad guys start out to be, in the end the theory will metastasize to include the belief that they're somehow aligned with government power -- power that is, of course, being used to persecute you. Paranoia is a close cousin of narcissism; and people who've come to believe they're locked in a Great Cosmic Struggle tend to judge their own importance by the size of the enemies they attract. In that sweepstakes, the government is the biggest contender this side of Satan -- so it follows that if the government is out to get you, you must be somebody Very Important. Conversely (goes the thinking): if your cause is really that transformative, of course the government is going to try to thwart it.

As it takes hold, this belief changes the optics of every encounter between members of authoritarian groups and any government authority. A simple traffic stop or construction inspection takes on whole new layers of meaning. (They know! They're watching us!) Congressman Leo Ryan (the late Tom Lantos's predecessor) probably didn't understand just what it meant when he decided to respond to constituent requests and fly down to Jonestown; but Jim Jones and his followers were strongly predisposed to view the visit as a hostile invasion, and responded accordingly. Ryan and several of his staffers were shot to death on the airport tarmac; and back at the ranch, Jones set out the Flavor-Aid for his doomed followers.

This, too, is a signaling shift, as first-stage beliefs that "our group is above the law" harden into a second stage belief that overt revolt against the state is necessary. When the rhetoric calls for revolution, it's one sign that (taken in a larger context) may point to imminent trouble.

Intensification of illegal activities. The CSIS report doesn't note this, but it's true: As members become more and more separated from the larger society's norms, and more invested in their own version of a "higher law," they may begin to test their new-found "freedom" from legal oversight by disregarding the law in increasingly overt ways. People who were never much trouble before start behaving in ways that bring them into contact (and confrontation) with the authorities. This is a sign that the group has begun to adopt an attitude of open defiance and contempt toward the larger society, and is moving into the strongly oppositional stance that precedes a large-scale attack or confrontation.

The CSIS cautions us that where we see this accelerating pattern of lawless behavior, it's wise to look for evidence that weapons laws are also being broken. The authors note, for example, that locals in Waco, TX noticed that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons in the months before the siege began. If they're brazenly breaking other laws, it's a safe bet that they're also illegally gathering weapons and bomb-making materials as they prepare to either defend their home turf from perceived enemies, or make offensive plans to eradicate those enemies.

Humiliating circumstances. More often than not, the final breaking point is triggered by a specific event that humiliates the group's leaders, or gives them the sense that they're somehow losing their control over the group and its vision. Unfortunately, their egos are huge and their need for control is insatiable -- and, therefore, there are all kinds of relatively small events that carry the potential to set them off in very big ways.

Charismatic leaders are often making bold predictions that don't come true -- and may react violently in the aftermath of this disgrace. They may be subjected to media coverage that doesn't flatter their enormous egos, and proves before the world that nobody really understands them. They may be confronted by dissidents within their own group who challenge their authority, and strike out to reassert their control. They may have a health setback that weakens their sense of omnipotence, and frightens them into hasty action. As we'll see below, they may have a relatively minor -- or not-so-minor -- encounter with local authorities that they interpret as a huge and looming threat.

In most of the famous cases of extremist-group violence, the final confrontation is almost always provoked when the leader's fragile sense of power and control was thrown open to question. This perceived threat is overwhelmingly likely to be the triggering event that finally forces him into violent action.

Confrontation with authority. In the end, though, the final confrontation is too often triggered because authorities -- not realizing their special role in the unfolding eschatological drama -- blunder into it. As the report puts it:
Violence is often not actualized until the group comes into contact with state authorities, which usually embody all that is evil for the movement and which must be vanquished in order for the apocalyptic scenario to be realized. Action on the part of state agencies will almost always elicit a reaction, which underlining the delicacy with which the situation must be handled....Authorities often fail to appreciate the leverage they have over doomsday movements, which depend upon them to fulfill their apocalyptic scenarios. Failure to fully comprehend this symbolic role often results in actions that trigger violence.
If things get to this point, the CSIS report stresses, those in charge of managing the crisis need to move slowly; avoid humiliating the leader or backing him into a corner; and rely on negotiators who have a detailed understanding of the worldview and belief structure of that particular group, and can describe how each unfolding event is being perceived on the inside.

In particular, it warns that law enforcement groups often instinctively respond to defiance in fairly punitive ways. An embattled group is highly likely to interpret these sanctions as an act of war, and respond to by desperately escalating the level of violence. If the authorities respond to this with still heavier sanctions, it creates a "spiral of amplification" that can very quickly spin toward catastrophe.

* * *

It's striking to realize how many different kinds of groups have followed this rocky path through the years. They've been religious, political, and racist; they've been on both the left and right; and they've staked their future on everything from passing UFOs to a literal reading of Revelation. What they all have in common is an essential set of beliefs that leads them to invest everything in a fantasy future, an apocalyptic theology that enables them to justify violence, charismatic leaders who break down their sense of personal boundaries and weaken their attachment to social norms; and an exaggerated sense of isolation from the larger society that causes them to withdraw and project their fears outward -- and to focus their energies on striking back at anyone they think is threatening them.

Once those ingredients are assembled, it's often just a matter of time and circumstance before they catalyze and propel the group toward violence. We've now seen this often enough to know what the pattern looks like, and can see the signs well ahead that indicate a group that's heading down the crazy dangerous road.

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