Donald Trump said his followers should march on the Capitol at a rally on January 6, 2021, and they did, which was construed by some to mean Donald Trump inspired, and thus caused, his followers to act that day. However, some also pointed out that those who penetrated the Capitol had already planned to do so. Does that mean Donald Trump’s speech had nothing to do with it? How we make these types of assessments so as to understand past terrorist events and mitigate against future events?
For starters, we need to do any with oversimplistic causal explanations of why violent actors choose to act. Instead, we should look at the ecosystem people live within and how that can contribute to a critical mass where a person takes that next step. The better we understand, the better we can anticipate and mitigate. A systems view of extremist motivation recognizes that there are likely multiple factors that lead a person or group to act. That may include reading websites, books, pamphlets, and reports. That may include watching videos and TV news. It may include interacting via email, text, video, phone, social media, and online forums. People will be influenced in their beliefs by those they are receptive to, but also those they are not receptive to. The actions of their opponents may reinforce their beliefs about their opponents, and those biases may be stoked by people they follow.
What role do leaders play in ecosystems? For some groups, a leader actively coordinates extremist activity and inspires to directly act. A leader may have a chain of command under them or may listen to others for inspiration and encouragement. A media or political leader may fulfill the latter role, thus contributing to the conditions necessary to a person taking that final step, while not being the sole cause or even primary driver.
Some groups, such as leaderless resistance cells, may operate with less direction and even without a formal leader. Even then, participants may fulfill certain roles and certainly can influence one another. A single person trying to commit an extremist act may sometimes plan by themselves and act on their own initiative, but even then, they did not reach that point in a vacuum. Because of that, lone actors and lone wolves are misnomers that do not capture how extremism happens. Further, some lone wolves may have had help we are not aware of that brought them to that moment.
What about when a politician uses the same phrase as a terrorist? Examinations of how pundits and politicians mention words or narratives is helpful, but also incomplete. What they often miss is where these words and narratives originate. With far-right extremists, for instance, it is often the case that right-wing media and politicians are using far-right rhetoric that extremists already know, rather than extremists learning the words or narratives from the media or politician. It is not a simple causal explanation, but rather, more of a feedback loop than can turn into a crescendo.
There are many people who hold fringe or extreme beliefs in our society. The vast majority of them don’t act out in a physically damaging way. That that attempt an act of violent extremism need to overcome their normal desire to not risk arrest or death, either because they do not have anything left to lose, or because the cause is so compelling that the risk is worth it. If a politician were to use their language and call the people they identity with “patriots,” that may encourage them. If media pundits were to use repeatedly use rhetoric they are already familiar that fit into a conspiracy narrative they are familiar with, that may make the threat feel more imminent, thus increasing the likelihood of acting. While already believing the threat to be dangerous, if they repeatedly then hear media and politicians tell them that imminent threat will end their way of life, then they may be more prone to act on their beliefs. If one believes that they and their loves ones will lose their personal freedom if they do not act, then acting may make more sense to them, as the risk of being arrested would just be another way to lose their freedom.
Violent extremists are often rational actors within their worldview. While it is easy to call people crazy, and there may be degrees of delusion in some, there can be a cold logic that justifies violence against a perceived enemy, be it a person or system. So, those storming the US Capitol were acting on a belief that there was a stolen election by Democrats who were scheming to turn the United States into an oppressive socialist regime. Those into QAnon would additionally believe that an elite globalist cabal was orchestrating this and trying to stop Trump from implementing the plan to stop the cabal once and for all.
It is irresponsible when media pundits and politicians fearmonger about conspiracies while acting like there are no consequences to doing so. January 6 was evidence that eventually the ecosystem can not only inspire a single actor or small group, but a mob. While violent acts are the most visible, those are not the only problems arising from the ecosystem. Harassment and death threats based on those types of beliefs are far more common. And even when believers do not act out, living in paranoia can damage their relationships. They see it as battle for the soul of the nation, after all, which can diminish everything else in their lives.
To avoid mass casualty events, do not make that threat feel so imminent that people are willing to risk their life and freedom in pursuit of that cause. To mitigate extremist activity, we need to put aside the blinders of partisanship, speak truth to power, and examine the ecosystems around us. Law enforcement is important to deal with the symptoms, but we need to deal with the sociocultural issues that have arisen, and that starts with a humble look at the systems we are part of.