It was frightening to watch the violence at the Pro-Trump riot at the Capitol. What is wrong with these people? Are they mentally ill?
Extremists can be left-wing or right-wing, but their views are beyond the boundaries of the norm. Political extremists are people or groups that hold a set of beliefs that differ from society’s norm to a great degree. They will use drastic measures to gain attention, including violence. Groups that are commonly labeled as extremist include Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Proud Boys.
While America watched the riot unfold at the capitol and learned of this organized attack, it appeared that a large majority of the US population were extremists. Although it was shocking, there is less extremism than we think. Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of each other. Americans exaggerate the extremism of the other side. We call this America’s “Perception Gap”. Overall, Democrats and Republicans imagine there are almost twice as many of their political opponents than there really are.
A 2018 study conducted by “More In Common” (moreincommon.com), said that only 6% of Americans fit the definition of “Devoted Conservatives”, far-right people who feel that America is under threat and they’re the last line of defense in protecting traditional values with strident uncompromising views. On the other end of the political spectrum, the study identified 8% of Americans as “Progressive Activists” on the far left, 67% of those surveyed falling into what researchers labeled the “Exhausted Majority.” This largest group looks for common ground, has opinions based on situations instead of conforming to strict ideologies, and hates polarization. Even on the most controversial issues in our national debates, Americans are less divided than most of us think. More than three-quarters of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.
No matter the size, you may think that anyone who commits themselves to violent means is mentally ill. Not necessarily. Many offenders do not have mental illnesses or criminal histories. Mental illness is not a necessary condition for violence. Correlation is not causation.
Extremism, Radicalisation & Mental Health: 2019 Handbook for Practitioners, is an excellent resource for understanding the role of mental illness in terrorism. “There is no empirical evidence to suggest that terrorism is predominantly committed by mentally ill individuals, and where mental illness is present, it may not be relevant to the risk [of violence].” However, various types of mental illness may cause an individual to be vulnerable to extremism. It’s complicated. There is no simple formula for the role mental illness plays in shaping extremism.
If not mentally ill, why do people go to such extremes? Many extremists who carry out these acts share underlying traits. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that the following makes people more prone to radicalization: feeling alone or lacking meaning and purpose in life; being emotionally upset after a stressful event; disagreeing with government policy; not feeling valued or appreciated by society; believing they have limited chances to succeed; feeling hatred toward certain types of people. Many extremist groups thrive on righting what they perceive as a historic wrong. A shared sense of victimhood is often what bonds extremists.
A 2016 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies finds that the underlying causes of violent extremism are very similar to the underlying causes for other social issues, such as drug abuse, alcoholism, gang activity, and criminality. The cure is really the same for everything that affects society, which is a good public health system, education, job training, and a strong sense of community support.
At the time of this writing, more than 100 individuals involved in the Capitol riots have been arrested. Each of them has a unique reason for their behavior. As a starting point for discussion and understanding, I would ask each individual, “What problem does your attempted solution fix, and also what life experiences might have led you to this solution?”