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How to Thwart Right-Wing Terrorism

Three distinct psychological predispositions combine to produce terrorists. And one appears to be on the rise among the extreme right.
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A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on January 4th, 2017.

A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on January 4th, 2017.

While the term "terrorism" has been applied in recent years almost exclusively to radical Islamic extremists, many officials—including Attorney General Jeff Sessions—have used it to describe to the violent death of a counter-protester during that neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The horrifying incident raises a disturbing question: Are there commonalities in the psychological make-up of those who espouse far-right social views and violent extremists? And if so, does that mean we can expect an upswing in homegrown terrorism?

A newly published analysis by University of Sydney psychologist Lazar Stankov reports the answers to those questions: yes, and maybe.

Heading off such violence, he argues in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, might come down to combating one specific component of the terrorist mindset that may be malleable.

Stankov's synthesis of two areas of research is based on three large data sets—two measuring conservatism, which together included about 19,000 people in 33 nations, and another measuring the "militant extremist mindset," which featured 2,400 people from 10 countries.*

"Without grudge, the militant extremist mindset is incomplete."

He identified two basic traits that are common to the mental make-up of members of both groups: religiosity and "nastiness." The latter is characterized by such beliefs as "one's honor is worth defending aggressively" and "sometimes it is necessary to take advantage of others."

While relatively few people take such notions to the extreme, those who score high on this scale "tend to be more conservative than those scoring low," he writes. The same goes for religiosity. Indeed, it's easy to imagine both the Barcelona terrorists and white supremacists holding such beliefs.

"On its own, these processes are unlikely to lead to a significant increase in terrorist activity, even if the number of conservative-leaning members of the population were to increase," Stankov writes. "Our research, however, identified another component of the militant extremist mindset that might precipitate a new wave of terrorism by groups linked to extreme right-wing/populist political parties."

He calls this "grudge," which he defines as "a generalized belief in a vile world." One obvious example: Radical Islamists view the world as having been polluted by immorality. "Without grudge," Stankov writes, "the militant extremist mindset is incomplete."

Thus it is hugely concerning that there are "suggestions in the political climate" that this mindset may be on the rise in Western nations. Stankov points to "the emergence of Donald Trump in the U.S." and the success of right-wing populist parties in some European countries, including Hungary.

As the right becomes more radicalized, "Political correctness may be interpreted as the implementation of morally rotten policies in our social lives," he warns. "As a consequence, social institutions—including universities, which are perceived to promote or tolerate such dissenting views—might become targets of terrorist attacks."

Nastiness and religiosity are believed to be genetically influenced, and thus difficult to modify. But Stankov argues that the "grudge" mindset can potentially be reduced through "the engagement of media, community groups, and education." Religious leaders, he writes, need to spend more time "debunking the proposition that the West is evil, and promoting the value of life."

Without such interventions, he concludes, "we might witness a new wave of home-grown terrorism from groups with right-wing political orientation who are responding to the agenda of populist politicians." Consider that warning the latest missive from the Grudge Report.

*Update — August 24th, 2017: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the number of participants in the researchers' "conservatism" data set.