Sean O’Callaghan, former member of the IRA, spoke on the concept of radicalization at the 6th Annual International Cyber Conference on Dispute Resolution, hosted by CSU Dominguez Hills, and his comments on the process of radicalization seem especially appropriate after the tragedy in Orlando. As a former member of the IRA, and one who admits to violence, he has clearer insights into this concept than a lot of commentators and psychologists who have not gone through this process and, more importantly, rejected it. His comments, made after the violence in France, are equally applicable to Orlando.
O’Callaghan commented that every ideology has its own extremists, adherents to the ideology who do not compromise. “Fanaticism is part of the human condition,” he said. Fanatics exist within all groups and do not represent everyone from a country or religion or political party, but they get most of the attention, often by violent means.
“The people we have come to call radicals or fanatics don’t think they’re radicals or even different,” said O’Callaghan. They are proud of their commitment to their ideology and think they are doing the right thing. In a twisted logic, they explain their willingness to risk their own lives as caring more about you than about themselves; the violence is a way to save your from evil.
“We live our lives through a series of small negotiations,” said O’Callaghan, but zealots “do not engage, they do not negotiate.” They look for perfection and anything that spoils it, including the imperfect “you,” must be eliminated to reach the ideal state as only they define it. “I’m capable of murder and love, sometimes in the same heartbeat,” he admitted.
Experts talk about how the sense of isolation can drive fanaticism. Radicals suffer from a “poverty of aspiration,” and will cling to anything that offers self-esteem such as being heralded as a martyr. One psychiatrist explained that sometimes people with murderous rage need to legitimize it, so they identify with an extremist ideology and use it as an excuse.
O’Callaghan does not hold out much hope for peace processes as they are generally understood because they attempt to deal with global problems while ignoring the local problem and rhythm of everyday life. Restorative justice processes, he thinks, can bring out “unpalatable truths” that make peace more difficult to achieve. And what works in one place will likely not work in another because the underlying issues and cultures are different. The local population won’t believe in the process, doesn’t believe they’ll get the truth, and can’t really forgive their neighbors. “Politicians arrive at a solution,” he said, “but we go on hating each other.”
Instead, O’Callaghan advocates peace processes that are simple, defined, and deal with the current reality rather than getting “entangled with the past.” Fanatics, he said, decide to move on. They get worn down and accept the current reality. (See my column of April 19 for additional comments.) Fanatics may not forgive or forget, but they get on with a new life.
To get radicals to move on, then, radicals need a good reason that replaces the lack of aspiration, the sense of isolation, the sense that martyrdom is the only source of self-esteem and that perfection is not necessarily the criterion for ending another person’s life.
The answer may be with concepts called “therapeutic jurisprudence” and “positive criminology” that were also discussed at the cyber conference.
Therapeutic jurisprudence focuses on the legal process and suggests incorporating elements of mediation such as allowing the defendant to tell his or her story, listening respectfully, and bringing in family members to develop a relapse prevention plan. The plan focuses on the defendant’s humanity rather than criminality.
Positive criminology focuses on addressing the sense of social isolation that drives fanatics to find self-esteem in fanaticism. It requires that the social systems that exclude the fanatic change to accept the fanatic on some level so that the need for affiliation with a radical group is reduced. This process focuses on separating what the person did in the past from his or her basic humanity and connecting to society on that level. Processes focus on providing positive experiences that demonstrate that there are rewards outside of fanaticism, and working on social integration.
These same ideas were suggested after the tragedies in France: find a way to include people in society so they have no emotional or psychological need to find another, deadly route to self esteem. Reciprocal violence and harsh penalties are not the answer, but as O’Callaghan said, the solutions are local, not global, and they have to address the current reality, not past issues. He also said we might have to fight for democracy if our current approaches continue to fail.
O’Callaghan was a wonderful and insightful speaker. I truly wish his comments hadn’t been so pertinent and that I had never had this opportunity to write about their relevance.
Have an absolutely wonderful week, and bring peace wherever you can.