In the 21st century, terror attacks have become relatively common. Within 2018 alone, 1,744 terror attacks were recorded by the Rise to Peace Active Intelligence database. Researchers for years have been trying to understand why one becomes radical, what psychologically is different in a person that makes them inherently violent or extreme? It is difficult to pinpoint because there is no one profile that all radicalized people fall under. Many come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, educated backgrounds, both men and women of different ages, etc.
According to Arie Kruglanski, a researcher at the University of Maryland, looking at extremism case by case, whether it is neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), or members of ISIL, the underlying reasons that propel them to be violently angry is the same. These are a person’s need to have a significance, a narrative, and a justification. Significance refers to a person’s need to have feelings of purpose and self-worth. While a non-radicalized person usually puts significance in things such as ‘raising a family’ or ‘working hard in one’s career’ many of those who later become radicalized lack these outlets, and put value only in gender, religion, or race. Narrative, according toKruglanski,is what gives a person permission to commit violent acts. The last factor is justification, or having community or network that a radical person belongs to that supports and justifies the violence they are committing.
These three factors are displayed in the case of Robert Bowers, a white nationalist and neo-Nazi who killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh Synagogue on October 27th, 2018. When Bowers entered the synagogue, he proclaimed that he wanted to, “kill Jews,” right before he opened fire. Bowers is radicalized; however, he was not always the white nationalist he is today. Looking at his profile, he slowly fell into radicalization.
Bowers did not have a significance outside of his racial identity. It was evident after reading multiple accounts from his old neighbors that he did not have any significant identifiers, none of them could recall anything significant about him. Along with this, he never had a steady job and he also did not have any family. For Bowers, he prided himself on belonging to the white male majority and was passionate about ensuring that nobody impeded on that.
Bowers also created a narrative that gave him permission to turn to violence. Before the attack happened, the immediate threat to his significance or group, his white majority, was being attacked, in his eyes, when a caravan of immigrants was on its way to the United States. Neo-Nazis linked this to the Jewish community by suggesting that George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, was organizing and paying for the caravan. In Bowers’ mind, this act would justify his violence because it was a ‘direct threat to his group.’
Bowers received justification for his actions through a large community of support on social media. While none of Bowers’ neighbors knew about his antisemitic behavior, he freely posted slanders on a platform called Gab. Gab is a social network that allegedly champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online. All are welcome. Gab is also known to be a popular social network for being friendly for extremists and even a “safe haven” for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right. Bowers had been posting antisemitic slanders on his account for months before the attack. His last post on Gab stated that he, “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” This was posted minutes before opening fire.
Gab stated that while it supports freedom of speech, it also “unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence…Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.” Gab said it was alerted to the suspect’s profile on their platform, backed up the data, suspended the account, and contacted the FBI. This online community, which provided Bowers’s justification for violence, worked in tandem with his narrative and significance to craft a person capable of carrying out an extremist attack.