When it comes to radicalisation it is all about people

There is an interesting piece in today’s Ottawa Citizen about a woman who was once the ‘pretty public face‘ of one of Canada’s nastier white supremacist organisations, Heritage Front.  Elizabeth Moore joined the group in high school and even became a spokesperson, a role she embraced, before doubts started to set in and she left after only a few years.  She began to speak out publicly against the Front and eventually married a Jewish man, the very ethnicity/faith that her former ‘colleagues’ hated so much that they would chant ‘These boots are made for stompin; and that’s just what they’ll do; and one of these days these boots are going to stomp all over Jews‘.

In her own interpretation of why she joined up Ms. Moore cites the following factors:

  • she attended an ethnically diverse school in Scarborough in the early 1990s and was often the only white girl in class
  • she heard from classmates that their parents would not let them be friends with her because ‘white kids are lazy’ and because ‘your ancestors enslaved my ancestors’
  • when she was feeling disaffected and convinced herself that the reason for that was ‘those people over there’
  • a boy she knew gave her Heritage Front literature.

Bingo!  That last bullet is the key to understanding radicalisation to violence.  It is not only about alienation or disenfranchisement.  It is not only about feeling left out or discriminated against.  It is not only about wanting to fit it.  It is everything about who is in your network, the person or people who help you down your personal path to violence.

I cannot stress this enough.  Every single person who embraces a violent ideology comes to the table with unique characteristics and life experiences.  There is no ‘single pathway’ or template and there never will be.  Yes, there are some commonalities but these are not always present.  The exceptions are truly the rule when it comes to radicalisation.

In Ms. Moore’s case she felt ostracised and alone in early high school – aged what, 13 or 14?  I wonder how many 13 and 14 year olds feel this way?  How about all of them! We all go through a stage where we don’t feel 100% great about ourselves and wonder what it all means.  This is part of the human condition and growing up: it always has been and it always will be.  The key to why a small number go on to join causes like Heritage Front is the sudden appearance of someone that provides you with THE ANSWER.  As Ms.Moore describes it ‘there’s nothing more powerful than that.  It’s like an instant elixir. It solves everything — or seems to’.  It is people that cause radicalisation, not underlying ‘issues’.

This is why the notion of ‘self-radicalisation’ is so nonsensical.  If all it took were a pile of grievances, both personal and national/religious/international, and ‘vulnerabilities’ then we would have 7 BILLION radicalised people on our planet.  But we don’t so something else must be at play.  That something else is a ‘radicaliser’ or a facilitator or just someone that points you in a direction you hadn’t thought of before.  In the absence of such a person most people don’t become violent radicals.  That is indeed a good thing.

This is why it is so important to shut down the radicalisers, the spewers of hate.  There is a catch though: a lot of what these ideologues do and say is protected under things like our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada or the US First Amendment.  But just because these activities are protected does not imply that they cannot be challenged and shown for the simple garbage they are.  We all have a duty to do so.

In the end I am happy to see that Ms.Moore has abandoned her erstwhile cause and gone on to a normal life.  Kudos to her. Others are not so fortunate.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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