I was impelled to write this post by a fascinating article that just appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, How Islamic State teaches hate: insights from an ex-Al Qaeda jihadist.
Modern society has been shocked by the incredibly sadistic violence of ISIS, whose fighters have been massacring thousands of people, mostly their own Muslim brethren, and filming themselves cold-bloodedly beheading people or burning them alive.
Last year we were shocked by Elliot Rodger, a young man of privileged background who went on a killing spree against college students in Santa Barbara.
A couple of years ago, we were shocked by Christopher Dorner, who waged a Rambo-like war against his former employer, the Los Angeles Police Department.
These are only a couple of examples. Every day the news is replete with acts of mass violence happening one place or another on the globe.
Where are all the psychopaths coming from?
We wonder how it can be that so many seemingly normal people, even ones charged with protecting the public, can be psychopaths. We are also convinced that we, good people that we are, could never engage in such monstrous behavior.
An obvious difference between people like Elliott Rodger and Christopher Dorner on the one hand, and ISIS on the other is that the former were lone wolves, while the latter consists of about seventy thousand people. It can be easy to dismiss a lone wolf as a psychopath, but how about a group of tens of thousands? Were they all recruited at a psychopath mega-convention?
Why do we consider mass murder incomprehensible?
The science of psychology should be able to make mass violence comprehensible, for it is a phenomenon that’s been going on for all of human history. And indeed psychology can easily explain it. Two recent scientific books help make sense of it: The Joy of Pain: Schadenfraude and the dark side of human nature, by Richard Smith, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.
Why, then, is mass violence being so widely considered a human anomaly, a psychopathy beyond our comprehension?
I would suggest that a major factor is the pervasiveness of the anti-bullying psychology, a field that has become the dominant force in current psychology, influencing all aggression-related studies. It is being inculcated in our children from preschool, and has become enshrined by law in most of the modern world. The usage of the word “bully” has skyrocketed in both the popular media and the scholarly world. Indeed, the yearly October Bullying Awareness Month has done an exemplary job of making us aware of bullying all year long.
The anti-bully model of social life informs us that bullies constitute a substantial minority of the population, ranging from around 10% to around 40% percent of the population depending upon the study you read. Bullies are defined as empathy-deficient people who get pleasure from inflicting harm on others, do it repeatedly, and take advantage of their superior power. They fit the definition of evil, of psychopathy. The rest of us, who are not bullies, have a healthy capacity for empathy and cannot enjoy inflicting pain on others.
The tendencies of human beings to see ourselves as good and others as bad, and to blame others for our misery, are well known to psychology. The popular bullying psychology fosters these irrational beliefs. It labels anyone who commits an aggressive act as a bully, and comforts us by telling us that if we’re being bullied it has absolutely nothing to do with us—it is only because of them. It insists that we must have no tolerance for bullies and that they need to be eradicated from society.
Thus, the widespread belief that evil behavior is the domain of bullies has made it more difficult to comprehend mass killings. After all, we are not bullies and don’t think like they do. Unlike them, we have the capacity for empathy. We can’t identify with those who take pleasure in causing pain. We don’t understand how they can possibly act that way. Truly they are incomprehensible to us.
The uncomfortable truth about mass killers
But what do we discover when we examine the motives of mass murderers? We discover that they never see themselves as bullies. On the contrary: they insist they are the true victims! Elliot Rodger’s autobiography , posted on the internet for the benefit of all, justifies his warfare as revenge against women for supposedly not wanting to have sex with him. Christopher Dorner informed us that he was a victim of rampant racism in the police department and armed forces. If you follow the news about ongoing wars, you will notice that each side passionately claims they are the victim and the other is the bully.
You don’t even need to look at extreme violence. Pay attention to your own behavior. You will notice that in almost every case in which you treated someone badly, it was because you felt victimized by them in some way.
Therefore, if we wish to understand mass murder, we need to abandon the anti-bully psychology because it doesn’t conform with reality. As much as we may not like to hear it, the greatest danger is not the bully mentality, but the victim mentality.
How ISIS recruits
Back to the Christian Science Monitor article. It highlights the teachings of Aiden Dean, a former jihadist, who has first hand, in-depth knowledge of the process by which ISIS recruits normal people and turns them into psychopathic murderers. He says, “Its success in producing throngs of committed fighters has depended on fostering recruits’ ‘spiritual ascension’ through a sense of religious guilt and victimhood” (emphasis added).
The article details an “unholy trinity” that enables ISIS to seduce recruits. It includes:
…invoking religious guilt among young Muslims that they are not sufficiently pious, then persuading them that the West is waging a war against Islam. The third phase is psychological in which the potential recruit develops a persecution complex because he is a Muslim, withdraws from society, and eventually comes to believe that he is superior to those surrounding him. “With his spiritual ascension, he starts to see everyone else as nothing but pigs and cows. And that unleashes the psychopath within in order for him to go and slaughter people without any remorse whatsoever,” Dean says.
Notice that Dean refers to “the psychopath within.” It means within all of us. We are all capable of acting psychopathically when we see ourselves as morally superior to our tormentors. We feel fully justified committing violent acts against them that are infinitely worse than whatever they did to us.
Thus, ISIS fighters are certain they are doing ultimate good, righting the wrongs of a world that has victimized Islam. And the more of their ranks that the West kills in its campaign against ISIS, the more their feelings of victimhood are validated.
The same process was responsible for the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler believed that he – and the entire world – were victims of the Jews. He convinced Europeans that they belonged to a superior Aryan race and that all their problems were the fault of the inferior Jews. He demonized Jews, called them subhuman swine, and got masses of perfectly normal people to exterminate them. Not only weren’t the killers’ consciences bothering them, they were proud of themselves, believing they were doing ultimate good.
You will find the same internal dynamics at play in virtually every mass killer, including Christopher Dorner and Elliot Rodgers. Believing that victims are good and bullies are evil, they self-righteously kill anyone they believe is associated with the cause of their misery.
It is a simple matter to understand the mass violence that’s been going on in the world since time immemorial. But we must ignore the anti-bully psychology. Good psychology understands that evil is within us all, and that we’re most likely to unleash it when we think like victims.
Once we recognize this, the news makes so much more sense.
Author’s Transparency Declaration: I declare that I do have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems. This article has been republished with permission from his blog.