What role does trauma play in radicalisation?

The renowned US journal Scientific American put out a fascinating article today in which leading scholars were asked what the top 20 “big questions” facing humanity in the future.  The questions posed ranged from space exploration to medicine, but it was the following that caught my eye (reproduced in its entirety: for the complete list go here):

5. Will brain science change criminal law? “In all likelihood, the brain is a causal machine, in the sense that it goes from state to state as a function of antecedent conditions. The implications of this for criminal law are absolutely nil. For one thing, all mammals and birds have circuitry for self-control, which is modified through reinforcement learning (being rewarded for making good choices), especially in a social context. Criminal law is also about public safety and welfare. Even if we could identify circuitry unique to serial child rapists, for example, they could not just be allowed to go free, because they would be apt to repeat. Were we to conclude, regarding, say, Boston priest John Geoghan, who molested some 130 children, ‘It’s not his fault he has that brain, so let him go home,’ the result would undoubtedly be vigilante justice. And when rough justice takes the place of a criminal justice system rooted in years of making fair-minded law, things get very ugly very quickly.”  —Patricia Churchland, professor of philosophy and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego

This answer, especially the first half,  made me reflect on the case of Aaron Driver, the young man killed last week in Strathroy, Ontario by the RCMP after they realised he was planning a mass casualty attack somewhere in Canada. As we have learned more and more about Mr. Driver’s  life it has become very clear that he was exposed to a lot of tragedy, loss and upheaval. His mother died from cancer when he was 7.  He was estranged from his father and disliked his stepmother.  His girlfriend lost their baby at birth.  All in all an awful lot for a young man to handle.  But do all these events and their impact on a developing Aaron Driver – and his brain- explain why he radicalised and decided to go out in a blaze of glory in fealty to Islamic State?

We will never know.  There is little doubt, at least from a layperson’s perspective, that everything that befell this man must have had some effect on him and that these “antecedent conditions” changed him somewhat.  But did they “cause” him to adopt a violent radical ideology that uses Islam as its justification for violence?

It is impossible to tell but there are important distinctions to be made here.  We still confuse correlation with causation and we still try to reduce the “why?” of radicalisation to disparate events.  Except that it does not unfold this way.  As I have written before, we are the composite of a tremendous number of inputs – those “antecedent conditions” cited above.  Furthermore, as Prof. Churchland helpfully reminds us, we have a measure of self-control which we can choose to exercise to overrule those conditions.  Aaron Driver was not forced to become a radical, pledge allegiance to IS, build a bomb and produce a martyrdom video because of his short, tragic life.  He CHOSE to do so.

The other insurmountable problem for those who seek to “explain” radicalisation through an examination of antecedents is twofold:

a) not everyone who embraces violent extremism has suffered through horrendous life experiences, and

b) not everyone who has suffered through horrendous life experiences becomes a violent extremist.

These two are examples, respectively, of false negatives and false positives and they complicate our understanding of the mechanisms of violent radicalisation.  In addition, I see no way to resolve these obstacles.

In the end, Aaron Driver was the product of those events, relationships and psychological factors that uniquely made him who he was.  So of course the death of his mother and his subsequent tragic incidents contributed to who he was and what he became. But they do not EXPLAIN why he did what he did.

Aaron Driver was both victim and terrorist.  He was the victim of hardship beyond his control but elected to channel that hardship into a life as a violent extremist and, albeit very briefly, a terrorist, all of which was completely within his control.  We can mourn the loss of a young man’s life but we cannot dismiss the fact that he died as a terrorist.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Furthermore, everyone seems to be forgetting that had he not been stopped he could very well have maimed or killed many.  Those people would have been the victims of a terrorist attack perpetrated by a terrorist.

Let us not lose sight of what is actually happening here.  A man with “issues” (note that he was NOT mentally ill in the opinion of psychiatrists who examined him after  a peace bond was placed on him) chose to become a terrorist.  Some may see this as harsh and unfeeling: to me it is simply a reflection of what happened.

As an aside I realise that there is another aspect of this case that warrants comment – the implications of a case like Mr. Driver for the new counter-radicalisation centre of excellence promised by the Liberal government – but I will leave that for another day.


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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