There is some talk that Micah Johnson, the shooter who killed five police during a protest in Dallas, was radicalized online. Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” was either generated, nurtured, or both by browsing websites and communicating through social media.
I think he was radicalized.
As CNN reports, “Micah Johnson’s online history shows he followed dozens of sites that focused on injustices committed on the black community. He visited and liked several websites dedicated to Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers, along with the Nation of Islam and the Black Riders Liberation Party, two groups the Southern Poverty Law Center considers hate groups.”
Extremist websites act as pulls towards extremism, and this is enough for the media to go on. It fits with the good guy-bad guy narrative we like. There are groups out there that can simply brainwash a person to do bad things. But there is more to radicalization than what the media can get across in quick soundbites. There is also a push to extremis. It is the push, I believe, that we should be most worried about.
The Push to Extremism
In the simplest sense, the push is rejection. A person who is rejected by those in his immediate surroundings will look elsewhere for the things that we as social animals crave – validation, sympathy, explanations for why things happen the way they do, and so on. People need friendship and community, and they will find it in their school, family, neighborhood…or online.
There are several steps orthat lead to radicalization. It is quite simple and intuitive process, and if you have taken a criminology or sociology class in college, you may recognize it*:
- A person begins associating with a different crowd. This happens to most people at least once in their lives I imagine. In fact, for young people, this is a part of growing up. Consider the new kid in a school. She has to find a new collection of people. For adults, whose friendship networks should be somewhat set, as was the case with Micah Johnson, a new crowd oftentimes means that it was because the old crowd rejected him in some way. Given the little that I know about Johnson, I would speculate a guess that he had some painful run-ins with whites (not uncommon with black males) and no group in his current surroundings was able to address that pain.
- This first step is the most important. Once a person finds a community – physical or virtual – that in their mind they belong to, the human processes of socialization take place. And so the second step is the explaining of the world through that groups own unique subculture. It is at this point that Johnson may have come up with the ideas that violence is the way to deal with his problems. Had he not found these online groups, another solution would have been presented to him. For example, the people in my family simply take a “the meek shall inherit the earth” approach, and altogether ignore the transgressions of whites. There is no protesting in my family. But for Johnson, he found a group that gave him the idea that killing was a possibility.
- The future extremist must see rewards for the types of behaviors advocated. Extremist behavior must be reinforced. On social media sites, it could be as simple as getting an “upvote” or “like” if you say something the group approves of. Who knows, maybe some other person that Johnson was connected to online posted a tweet, post, video that suggested using firearms, and it got several positive comments or was favorited a lot. This is a type of reinforcement, showing that there are rewards for following the norms of the group.
This reinforcement is enough to get people to want this approval. This is not a weird idea or the presence of a weak mind. The fact is, most of the things we do are in response to what we think others think. This is a perfectly normal reaction to being in a given community. The guy who grows his beard absurdly long is not doing it for sanitary reasons – he is doing it because the people he respects respect the beard. Similarly, since we are dealing with racial issues here, my sense is that much racial phenomena is powered by whites simply making decisions based upon what others think. They may want to sit down and chat with the black woman or man out of curiosity, similar interests, or physical attraction…but what will my friends think? In my own experiences, I have found that racial others are far more forthright and open when they meet me one on one. When they are with their co-ethnics then group dynamics take over, and they must please the group. It is simply human nature.
But I am digressing. Back to Johnson. My belief is that Micah Johnson, and others who resort to deviant behaviors that require strong state responses, including jailing and killing (i.e. extremism), are pushed into these groups and then learn new behaviors there.
There But For the Grace of God Go I
There is a kind of randomness to the idea that our associates can determine what we decide to do in life. Actually, I choose randomness, but a more religious person may look to divine intervention and say that God has saved them from such a fate. Whether you take a sociological or theological angle, the fact is that outside influence are at play here.
This idea, what criminologists and sociologists call social learning theory, presents some dilemmas for our society. If Johnson is an isolated incident, then we can pass it off as one psychopath with a rifle. Micah Johnson is indeed a lone wolf, but there are other potential lone wolves out there, because the conditions that lead to people like Johnson trying to make sense of racial inequality remain. This shifts some of the responsibility away from the individual (the crazy person who just wants to kill white people) to society (the patterns in place that push people like Johnson towards extremist groups).
There are these extremist groups out there are always pulling, pulling, and pulling. But without dissatisfied people who cannot make sense of inequality and injustice – people being pushed – they could not gain strength.
As a society, we have to work on not pushing people.
*The ideas above are modifications and applications of Ronald Akers’ Social Learning Theory.