Jan 30, 2021

If someone you care about has been radicalized, here's what to know

Alia E. Dastagir
January 17, 2021

The violence America witnessed at the U.S. Capitol was more than unleashed rage. Terrorism experts say it was the culmination of years of radicalization.

"A lot of people at the Capitol protest I would describe as radicalized," said Mary Beth Altier, a professor at NYU's Center for Global Affairs and an expert in political violence. "I'm worried about the next two to three weeks, and then after the election about the potential for escalation."

Wednesday's insurrection left much of the nation stunned. But many friends and family of the rioters felt something else, too: grief, powerlessness, humiliation. The daughter of a Virginia man who was arrested said she was "ashamed and disgusted" by her father's actions. The sister of Rosanne Boyland, who was killed in the riot, said her family begged her not to go.

"It can be heartbreaking for families to realize that they have lost family members to this way of thinking," said John Horgan, a psychology professor at Georgia State University and director of the Violent Extremism Research Group.

USA TODAY spoke with Altier and Horgan about what radicalization is, how de-radicalization works and where there is room for loved ones to help: 

What is radicalization?
Radicalization is when someone accepts or believes in ideas that are considered extreme or outside the status quo, Altier said. When someone becomes radicalized, they are so committed to their extreme beliefs that they can't accept the fact that other people believe different things.

Not all people who become radicalized are violent, though radicalization can lead to violent extremism. Some people at the Capitol riot were radicalized, Altier said, but not all committed or even condoned violence.

What is de-radicalization?
De-radicalization is the process of giving up your belief in an extreme idea. It's also accepting pluralism – allowing for a reality in which we can all hold different beliefs and recognizing that we shouldn't impose our beliefs on others. Extreme ideologies usually maintain that other versions of reality aren't acceptable. 

Horgan said de-radicalization usually happens when someone grows disillusioned with their involvement in an extreme group. Often many people have to cross a line before they decide to step back. 

Why someone can't be forced to de-radicalize
Experts say people generally can't be forced to de-radicalize. A person has to want to change.

"It's not something that people can be convinced to do," Horgan said. "I don't know that it's ever necessarily too late ... but be careful about the allure of a quick fix."

He notes much of what we know about the process of de-radicalization from terrorism comes from prison settings, which is not comparable to a setting in which a concerned family member may approach a loved one. But even then, the success of these efforts has been limited. 

Experts say de-radicalization can take years, decades even, especially when someone is deeply ideologically committed.

"I've interviewed a neo-Nazi who would look at bagels and wouldn't eat them because they were 'of the Jews' essentially," Altier said. "Even though he's left this Nazi group, he doesn't really engage in that anymore. ... You've trained your mind to think one way, and now you have to untrain it – that when you see a bagel, you don't think horrific things."

Prevention is the best bet
It's easier to prevent radicalization than it is to become de-radicalized. Once someone becomes radicalized, they engage in what's called "psychological reactance."

"The more that you tell them something's wrong, the more they kind of dig in and believe it, especially if it's coming from a non-credible voice," Altier said.

It can be frustrating for families since their efforts to help are often reflexively rebuffed, while the internet acts as a vital accelerant for radical ideas.

When someone is vulnerable to radicalization, they are often in distress, so if you see someone you care about struggling, experts say reach out and offer support. The problem, they say, arises when distress becomes combined with ideology.

"When somebody tells you, 'Hey, I know you're in distress, but guess what? Somebody is responsible for it.' That's when people find themselves being radicalized and scapegoating others," Horgan said.

Offer an alternative social safety net
Directly challenging someone on their beliefs will not be fruitful. Instead, experts say you should offer alternative opportunities to channel frustration that don't involve violence, as well as alternative avenues for socialization. 

Altier said some of the people who attended the Capitol riot likely did so because they were lured by the group. 

It can be as simple as saying to someone "Hey, come hang out with us and do something else," she said.

Studies show over time, when people have more social options, when they engage in other social relationships through their jobs or their schools, their beliefs can start to change. 

"They're interacting with people who have alternate views, but those views aren't being pushed on them, they're being exposed to them," Altier said.

A role for all of us to play
The bad news is there are no easy answers. There are endless pathways to radicalization for people with diverse histories who are motivated by a mix of grievances. Some people won't be reached. Others will, but it will require patience and recognizing there are limits to what loved ones can do. 

If someone does want to take a step back from their extreme beliefs, to reexamine them or eventually disengage, one of the most productive things we can do is make it safe for them to change their minds.

"We need to reassure people that there are ways for them to come back," he said. "They have a role to play in warning others about the dangers of getting sucked in." 


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