Criminal Justice Professor Discusses the Path from Partisan to Extremist
By: Nick Santangelo
On January 6, a group of extremists unhappy with the results of the 2020 presidential election turned a political protest at the United States Capitol Building violent. Tragically, five people lost their lives and well over one hundred were injured.
Why did the most extreme right-wing elements take action that resulted in senseless deaths and injuries? What will happen to them now? And are they any different from extreme left-wing individuals who have also turned to illegal activities during protests?
Criminal Justice Assistant Professor Steven Windisch has studied extremism and white supremacy since graduate school. He cautions that the extremists responsible for the Capitol riot belong to many different groups with varied ideologies. His research, however, has found that extremists have typically experienced tragedy themselves.
“There's a lot of trauma in these individuals with childhoods with parental mental illness, parental drug abuse as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” explains Dr. Windisch. One of the things we now know in criminal justice and criminology is violence begets violence. Many violent offenders experienced childhood violence.”
At the College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Windisch teaches courses on domestic terrorism and hate crimes. In the classroom, students learn perpetrators of those acts typically have traumatic backgrounds. They also learn that, counter to one popular narrative, they don’t all suffer from mental health issues. The coursework explores the lived experiences of violent extremists, with students discovering how passionate ideologues can become so radicalized that they believe violence is the only solution to perceived problems.
Right-wing extremists don’t all have the same socioeconomic status, nor do they all have the same grievances. Dr. Windisch has interviewed extremists who have run the gamut from the unemployed to teachers to doctors. Different extremists rally around different issues: immigration, cancel culture, the Second Amendment, patriotism, defunding the police and more. But they all share one thing in common.
“Whatever the issue is, underneath all of that is fear,” says the professor. “It's fear of social change. It's fear of racial change. It's fear of demographic change. And so the leaders use this fear as a way to scapegoat and point the finger at the outsider and say, ‘Hey, those people are contaminating our society, so we need to do something about it.’ And that's where the evolution starts.”
Social media often stokes the flames of whatever the issue may be. As an example, Dr. Windisch points to right-wing online discussions that refer to immigration as an “infestation.” This dials up the concern over “others'' while also dehumanizing them.
When social media algorithms and partisan media continually serve up more propaganda affirming these stances, radicalization occurs. Those consuming the content begin seeing themselves as noble, altruistic crusaders. With this worldview established, they’re able to justify violent means, viewing their actions as heroic efforts serving the public good.
While some view social media as a (relatively) new fuel source for this fire, Dr. Windisch mentions 2017’s Unite the Right rally and the racial backlash over Barack Obama’s 2008 election as examples of past violent extremism stemming from fear of the other. Given the country’s history, the professor says it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when extremism boiled over into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Likewise, the Anti-Defamation League found that things worsened last year. Instances of racial and ethnic propaganda nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020. Meanwhile, certain media and political figures spent 2020 telling their followers that the sitting president could only lose the election if it were “stolen.” The proposed solution was to fight for their country or risk losing it.
“And you can't say that every single person in the January 6 mob was a far-right extremist, but it took just enough who came with bats, with spears, with mace, with pipe bombs,” says Dr. Windisch. “They knew what they were going to do before they showed up, and they discussed it on social media.”
The criminal justice system is still working through what repercussions are justified for those who did turn to violence. Dr. Windisch says that because the United States doesn’t have designations and laws for domestic terrorists the way it does with foreign ones, the system may serve up relatively lenient punishments. Although the FBI publicly lists domestic extremist ideologies, and they’re reported on in the news, the U.S. government doesn’t have a formal designation for domestic terrorist groups.
“There is a common misconception that terrorism happens in the Middle East. It doesn't happen domestically,” says the professor. “We think ourselves too civilized to be susceptible to these kinds of urges and behaviors, so there's a lot of room to be made in terms of our laws and our designations.”
In addition to creating said laws and designations, Dr. Windisch wants more education on preventative measures in school and community settings. Additionally, he thinks Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, WhatsApp, Gab, etc. need to do a better job of moderating their platforms.
Some observers might counter that it’s not just right-wing extremists who need to be moderated. What of extreme left-wingers who committed acts of vandalism, arson and burglary during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests?
Dr. Windisch says violent left-wing extremists take similar trajectories from being passionately partisan to acting out in radical, illegal manners. But because these individuals are even more decentralized than right-wing extremists, they’re hard to define. The things they fight against are as diverse as racism, capitalism, climate change and even puppy mills. Broadly, it’s an ideology that’s anti-violence, which means the extremists typically turn to vandalism and economic terrorism.
Is that better? Worse? Similar? The answer might depend on your point of view.
“Both of these groups are always going to view their actions as self-defense,” concludes Dr. Windisch. “Nobody's going to say that they're a terrorist.”