An in-depth interview with a formerly violent right-wing extremist has provided psychologists with rare insights into the processes of disengagement and deradicalisation. John Horgan at Georgia State University and his colleagues interviewed “Sarah” face-to-face for several hours, and also followed up with telephone calls. Their account is published in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression. The woman had previously been a member of various Neo-Nazi right-wing groups and was ultimately imprisoned for her part in the armed robbery of a shop. Today, Sarah works to combat violence and racism by speaking to at-risk youths, and says she feels a “responsibility to go out and try to undo damage.”
The background to this from a research perspective is that violent extremism remains, thankfully, rare. Therefore psychologists rely on insights into the deradicalisation process mostly from interviews with professionals, family and friends who have contact with extremists. Interviews with extremists themselves are hard to obtain, making this in-depth case study a rare opportunity. A major limitation is that some or all of the processes involved in this case may not generalise to other extremists.
The researchers applied their “arc framework” to Sarah’s story – this is the idea that the path from extremist to de-radicalisation goes from involvement, to engagement, to disengagement, and that the nature of disengagement and deradicalistion – often a long-term process, rather than a sudden moment – will likely be shaped by the reasons behind initial involvement and engagement.
Sarah’s involvement in right-wing extremism came about through teenage feelings of alienation. These feelings were fostered by a religious schooling that clashed with her parents’ alcoholism and racism, and her emerging sexual interest in other girls. Sarah fell in with skinheads at high school. This group later split into Neo-Nazi and anti-fascist groups, and Sarah chose the former where she found a sense of purpose and belonging.
Sarah’s true engagement began when she volunteered to expel another member. “That to me was my crossover and where I said okay this is … now at this time I’m making this commitment, you know, to follow these rules, to be a member of the group.” She got more Neo-Nazi tattoos and was exposed to right-wing literature – she says this didn’t influence her beliefs, so much as give her a way to impress the other extremists around her. In fact, she says ideology only played a small part in her involvement – rather, she found the alternative and socially challenging lifestyle an attractive option, especially in light of her uncomfortable family circumstances.
The roots of Sarah’s disengagement run deep. She describes feeling doubts very early on, not least because she engaged in activities that she knew ran contrary to the beliefs of the groups she was involved with, such as her sexual promiscuity, including being involved with a Hispanic man. Her doubts were later compounded by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (by a right-wing extremist), including the image of an infant victim. But still, as her doubts intensified, she drowned them in more drink, drugs and deeper extremist involvement. As this tension between her desires to leave and her commitment took their toll, Sarah says she simply lacked the resources to leave and her involvement continued to provide her with “self-worth, validation and protection”.
The turning point came when Sarah was arrested for her part in an armed robbery, which she’d undertaken with her then-boyfriend who was a key figure in her extremist group. Her subsequent imprisonment meant involuntary disengagement from the group. This changed Sarah. She took responsibility for her actions, and whereas we often hear about people being radicalised in prison, the researchers say it was clear that the physical distance created by imprisonment provided the space and opportunity for Sarah to confront her doubts.
Once in jail she befriended black women and was surprised by their acceptance of her (despite her notoriety and racist tattoos). Sarah took a degree, broadened her outlook. She “started realizing the world truly is so much bigger than [her] and [her] beliefs and ideas and, you know, [her] feelings” which, she says, gave her a “terrific sense of freedom”. She subsequently began teaching in prison, including tutoring other inmates in how to read and write. She discovered her capacity for compassion and empathy, “you know actually caring about people that I professed to hate for so many years – those kind of experiences changed me tremendously.”
On her release, Sarah was terrified that she had “hardwired her brain” in her earlier life, but she made a conscious decision to challenge any racist thoughts that emerged in her mind, a process she likens to “breaking a bad habit”. Sarah’s feelings of responsibility to undo past damage and her newfound social role as preacher of tolerance have also been protective – helping to deepen her disengagement and making it psychologically meaningful. Today her fears of being hardwired to be racist have subsided.
The researchers acknowledged that their account of Sarah’s case is “partial, idiosyncratic and limited”, but they noted that “most of what is said and written about violent extremist offenders [is] rarely complemented by insights from the offenders themselves.” They concluded: “We do firmly hope that this case study serves as an illustration for future research purposes.”
Horgan, J., Altier, M., Shortland, N., & Taylor, M. (2016). Walking away: the disengagement and de-radicalization of a violent right-wing extremist Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2016.1156722
The psychology of violent extremism – digested
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