Dehumanization: A Key to Understanding Terrorism

smaller khanRolling Stone published an important, well researched and well written article this week titled The Children of ISIS, by Janet Reitman. It takes the reader inside the home and minds of the three teenagers from Chicago who were apprehended at the airport on their way to join ISIS last year. (Link below)

As I read about the young siblings I found myself empathizing with the psychological setting they were in. I understood what caused them to want, so desperately, to leave their parents, who they loved deeply, and to risk their lives for what they believed was the necessary path to serving God.

The article explains the social media that was used to recruit the young siblings. It also makes reference to a video, which the 17 year old girl (same age as when I joined the “Moonies”) watched and drew inspiration from.

I found the video online and watched it. I DO NOT advise watching this video. It is graphic and very disturbing. Unlike Hollywood movies, the scenes of violence are not fake. The video is filled with actual footage of lives being taken. The killings are always celebrated with cheers of God is great. The soldiers/killers are erasing evil in the name of God. It is a holy war, not unlike those that run through the story of human history.

During my “deprogramming” there was a moment when a crack formed in the circular thinking, which held me captive. It happened during the reading of a book by Robert J Lifton called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. In it, he writes about eight psychological themes that are present in thought reform, or “brainwashing”, or what we today refer to as radicalization. The crack in my thinking happened when I could see myself in those eight themes.

The final of the eight criteria Dr Lifton describes is The Dispensing of Existence. This is important to understand. How could this 17 year old girl, who was in so many ways a normal teenage girl, take inspiration from a video filled with graphic killings? The answer is that she was experiencing the same psychological condition that has allowed soldiers to kill their enemies throughout history, especially during “holy wars”.

We step on an ant, no problem, it’s an ant! The human mind can, under circumstances of high vulnerability to mental manipulation, begin to draw a line between “us” and “them” that creates dehumanization of “them”. This allows the mind to accept the necessity to remove “them”. They are not of God (or whatever word the doctrine uses) and therefore should not exist. They are the enemy of all that is good. The taking of their lives is like stepping on a bug, but with righteousness, with duty, for the sake of all that is good.

We are well trained in this mental exercise. As children we grow up with superheroes that destroy the bad guys, rid the world of evil, and kill the enemy like squishing bugs. We dehumanize in order to justify acts of war.

If we want to solve the problem of radicalization we need to understand the psychology that creates it. We all have times in our lives when we are especially vulnerable to various forms of mental manipulation. If we start with empathy we can begin to deconstruct radicalization so as to take its power away.

The Children of ISIS by Janet Reitman

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