Mar 27, 2017

Heaven's Gate suicide - how terrorist cults ensnare recruits: Richard M. Perloff (Opinion)

Guest Columnist
March 26, 2017

Richard M. Perloff

CLEVELAND -- Before she ingested a poisonous cocktail to shed her corporeal body in hopes of gaining cosmic redemption, before she became transfixed by the demonic power of guru Marshall Applewhite, and before she and 38 other Heaven's Gate members gained notoriety as the first cult to announce mass suicide on an Internet website, Gail Maeder was a soft-hearted animal lover and all-American seeker of adventure.

Twenty years ago today, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide en masse, shrouded by purple cloth, lying on cots and mattresses -- having long relinquished their autonomy to the demonic Applewhite, who chose the coercive verb "Do" as his cult appellation.

Cults are not new. The Rev. Jim Jones's infamous People's Temple and Jeffrey Lundgren's Reformed Latter Day Saint sect, which killed the Avery family on April 17, 1989 in Kirtland, Ohio, were both cults, with leaders harnessing power in destructive ways.

Revisiting Heaven's Gate in light of what we know about cults offers insights, as well as ideas about how today's exponentially more technologically savvy terrorist cults -- of which the Islamic State is most assuredly an exemplar -- harness the psychology of media persuasion to recruit hundreds of once-promising, sadly deluded individuals to their cause.

At Heaven's Gate, Applewhite, a bald, oddly charismatic man, appealed to his young followers' vulnerabilities, promising answers and blissful solutions if only they would yield to his ministrations. And yield they did, though for reasons we still do not totally understand.

Lonely and bereft of direction, followers like Maeder may have found harmony, social rewards, and a bizarre purposefulness they craved. Little by little, but inexorably, they traded individual freedom for the becalmed unity of groupthink.

Two decades after Heaven's Gate left doomsday messages on its Internet website, technology has been harnessed in more diabolical and destructive ways by 21st-century terrorist cults.

Like all classic cults, the Islamic State is isolated from civilized society, dominated by exploitative, violent leaders, and bent on giving only one malevolent view to those seeking psychological solace and political equanimity.

The Internet has become a cult recruiting tool. Online propaganda videos, cut with Hollywood-style panache, glorify the Islamic State, portraying the group as embarked on a grand adventure.

Just as posters of artistic and sports celebrities adorn the bedroom and Facebook walls of many teens in America, pictures of martyrs and uplifting messages may embroider the bedroom and Facebook walls of adolescent young men and women across the Middle East. Inspirational, though deceptive, messages hold out the promise that these adolescents, small in their own eyes, will gain respect from idealized cult leaders, whose reputations have been magnified by the propaganda videos that circulate on social media.

For adolescents like these, who grow up in bleak habitats, economically and spiritually impoverished, the promise of immortality earned by suicide bombing and attainment of a mystical vision that will outlive one's life inspire, propelling these young adults to join a cult that, they discover too late, is a sham, trafficking in hate, not hope.

What can be done? We cannot destroy terrorist cults any more than we can obliterate the deep psychic cauldron that metastasizes into evil. However, we can, harness knowledge.

Psychological research by Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele J. Gelfand, summarized in The New York Times, indicates that the more American Muslims feel culturally adrift and discriminated against, the more they experience a lack of existential meaning - and this drives them to extremist fundamentalist groups.

President Donald Trump thus runs a risk of pushing cult-contemplating Muslims bereft of hope into the terrorist camp when he executes a travel ban directed at countries that are almost entirely Muslim, and says he will prioritize Christians over other refugees.

Refusing to soften the blow, as George W. Bush did by saying that "the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends," Trump either deliberately, or by reasonable inference, invites Muslims to feel discriminated against.

The United States, the master of technology and inventor of so much social media, can do better, beating terrorist cult leaders at their own game.

Cults enlist unknown, low-credible communicators to promote their cause in YouTube videos, but we have international celebrities emulated by so many young men and women across the world: LeBron James, Bono, and more.

Suppose each celebrity made a compelling one-minute YouTube video, speaking on behalf of American values, even disagreeing with the White House (if they choose), to showcase dissent, but condemning the terrorist path, extolling the importance of democracy, dissent, and education. It would go viral immediately.

Of course, these testimonials will not eviscerate the structural problems that face so many would-be cultists. But they may cause them to question, helping undercut the glamor of terrorist propaganda.

Wars are won by words, as well as weapons, and words conveying ideas are our stock in trade, what we do best, what we have not exploited in the twilight battle against terrorist cults. It is time we got started.

Richard M. Perloff, a professor of communications and psychology at Cleveland State University, wrote about the psychology of cults in his textbook, "The Dynamics of Persuasion" (6th edition, 2017).

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