Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In the 19 days since the El Paso shooting, Thinking Security notes that local, state and/or Federal law enforcement have arrested nine men who either expressed a desire on social media to commit acts of domestic terrorism or a seemingly non-politically motivated mass shooting. They had amassed the means to do so (large amounts of weapons, ammunition and other related materials), or both. These men’s motivations and actions, ranged from the logically silly, to vengefully misogynistic or to violently extreme:

* A man in Missouri went into a Walmart wearing body armor and openly carrying an AR-pattern rifle. He wanted to determine if he was “allowed to exercise his 2nd Amendment rights” in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton domestic terrorist attack and shooting, respectively.
* An Ohio man planned attacks on a Jewish community center.
* A different Ohio man who identified online with the name “ArmyofChrist” was arrested for both planning to attack Planned Parenthood clinics and for threatening Federal law enforcement officers.
* A Long Island physician was planning to attack his ex-wife and her new family.
* A New Jersey man who had neo-Nazi materials, a large number of weapons and amount of ammunition, as well as drugs.
* A Connecticut man who had expressed interest in committing a mass shooting and who had posted racist material on social media.
* A Florida man who had stated his goal was to commit the longest distance confirmed kill, as well as a mass shooting with 100 victims.
* A 15-year-old in Florida who had made an online threat against his school.
* A California man who intended to commit a mass shooting at his workplace.

All of these men, clearly had racists and political motivations were all radicalized. They were not all radicalized to the same thing, nor at the same time, nor necessarily the same way.

But each of them had been radicalized into accepting the idea that either public shows of force (the Missouri open carrier) or mass murder through mass shooting (the disgruntled cook in California) were acceptable behaviors and solutions to their real or perceived problems.

Criminology has an empirical theory that explains radicalization, regardless of who is being radicalized and what they are being radicalized too. In the 1950s, Sykes and Matza put forth a variant of the social learning theory called neutralization and drift. They intended to clarify the social behavioral pathway that leads to delinquency, deviance and crime. Sykes and Matza theorized that delinquency, deviancy and crime are based on justifications that are used to rationalize behavior. And they called these justifications the “techniques of neutralization” because they neutralize behavioral norms, which then allow people to drift into crime, deviance and delinquency. Or in the cases we’re interested in — into extremism, terrorism, and/or mass violence.

The techniques of neutralization are divided into five types: 1) denial of responsibility; 2) denial of injury; 3) denial of victims; 4) condemnation of the condemners; 5) the appeal to higher loyalties. The first three justifications all deal with denial. They allow the offender to rationalize his behavior as outside of his control. He or she is not really hurting anyone. And even if someone is injured, they may have deserved it.

The fourth justification allows the offender to invert the knowledge of his wrongdoing back upon those criticizing it, by asserting that the condemners are hypocrites, do equally bad things, or are out to get him. The fifth rationalization allows for the justification of behavior based on loyalty to one’s group — rather than one’s society. Not every justification and rationalization is needed for radicalization.

In the El Paso and Gilroy domestic terrorist attacks and the nine incidents delineated above, we see some or all of the techniques of neutralization that served as justifications for drifting into extremism or employing mass violence through the use of firearms. The Dayton mass shooting is harder to parse at this time, as the shooter was killed by law enforcement. His social media presence is all over the map, and, as a result, it is unclear right now what his actual motivations were for his attack.

Radicalization followed one or more of the techniques of neutralization. Whether it was the Springfield, open (weapon) carrier, whose stated goal was determining if he would be allowed to exercise his 2nd Amendment rights (denial of injury and an appeal to a higher loyalty), to the four men arrested who expressed white supremacist or neo-Nazi intentions demonstrating denial of injury (the targets are inferior, or an appeal to a higher authority (the need to protect white culture or Christianity), to the Long Island physician who was planning to target his ex-wife and her new family (denial of victim and condemnation of the condemners), to the disgruntled California cook (denial of victim and condemnation of the condemners) —  each of these men’s radicalization followed one or more of the techniques of neutralization. It left them to drift towards mass violence.

The real issue confronting us as is how do we develop counter-radicalization programs and techniques to counter this phenomenon.