In examining the unfolding reality of radicalized violence, the root causes of the problem are poorly understood.
We would like to blame poverty, family dysfunction and lack of education, but social scientists find no clear demographic fingerprint for the kind of person who is pulled into radicalism. In the San Bernardino shooting, the husband-wife terrorists were college educated and had a baby. One had a stable job.
If demographics can’t illuminate this threat, maybe a shrink can.
As a psychiatrist and educator, I’ve spent 25 years trying to understand human behavior in its many forms. Rare are the moments in my practice in which I’ve been in the consulting room with someone I’ve worried about in this particular way.
But in such individuals, I observe a troubling two-step: a growing vulnerability to primitive fear and grievance, and the persuasive powers of other actors to exploit that vulnerability into violent action.
A radicalized individual thinks and behaves differently than most of us. But each begins life like everyone else, as an innocent, navigating the emotional bumps and bruises of early childhood. In doing so, we don’t eliminate the earlier, primal ways of the childish self, but we transcend them as we mature.
The toddler’s primitive fear of being left alone or rage at not getting his or her way may only result in a tantrum. Those same primal states can get re-activated in adulthood, but with much more dangerous toys to throw. The real-world circumstances of limited economic opportunity and political power can lead to a humiliating perception that the game of building an honorable life is rigged.
Deep fear over losing what we’ve got is hard to hold, and can regress into a paranoid, tribal stance. We likely underestimate this effect in the Middle East and elsewhere, where there is not even the pretense of agency to improve one’s life economically or politically.
These stormy climates of mind bypass our more evolved qualities for more basic instincts. Immersed in that heavy weather, these individuals are ripe for manipulation.
Valid grievance can become exploited into invalid rage and offensiveness, pitching out everything humanity has learned about living together peaceably.
Under the guise of solving this tension, the vulnerable are marks for the persuasive powers of those with their own self- or group-centered interests – as well as their own grandiose or sociopathic pathologies.
The Islamic State is deeply sociopathic, glorifying torture and weaving a pseudo-spiritual rationalization for a view of human rights that the civilized world left in the dust centuries ago.
The Islamic State is skilled at crafting a perverse but powerful appeal to deep grievance, ironically using the most technologically evolved communication tools available. It aims for the primal target of the vulnerable and aggrieved, simplifying for them whom to blame and how.
Domestically, we can also witness the persuasive power of manipulating fear and grievance, albeit for less perverse goals than the sadistic chaos that animates the Islamic State.
Candidates increasingly reach down to our fears and grievances instead of up to our aspirations. Donald Trump uses a megaphone rather than a dog whistle. Progressives are not completely immune to this approach either, when they simplistically paint all conservatives as heartless. The tactics are similar: Target the primal tensions of the vulnerable.
Are there solutions? Frankly, it’s more difficult to appeal to aspiration rather than the lowest denominators of our human experience. Aiming low is much easier. Our electoral process, with its dynamics of money-equals-speech ideology and constant battle played out in the media, needs change.
My own somber advice: Hang on. Hang on and model aspiration, compassion, and care for a challenged sense of civil society. Hang on tight to our loved ones. And be aware of the powerful risk of fear and grievance – especially our own – as being ripe for the picking.
Dr. Greg Sazima is a psychiatrist practicing in Roseville. He is senior behavioral faculty at the San Jose/O’Connor Family Medicine Residency Program, a Stanford Medical School affiliate.