Some things just don’t make any sense, and for a lot of us a young American deciding to fight for ISIS is one of them. It leaves you wondering: How does it happen? Why? What’s the attraction? What’s the mindset?
University of Maryland psychologist and terrorism expert Arie Kruglanski says it starts with a persistent “need for cognitive closure.” Mix that with the blinding clarity of a fundamentalist religion, add a youthful uncertainty that won’t grow up, throw in the allure of “glory through violence,” and you’ve got a psychological witches brew.
Kruglanski, an expert on militant extremists, is the central interview of Mother Jones correspondent Chris Mooney’s latest Inquiring Minds podcast and accompanying article, “Here Are the Psychological Reasons Why an American Might Join ISIS.”
This all comes up, of course, because of Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a convert to radical Islam from San Diego, Calif., who was killed two weekends ago in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
There no doubt were idiosyncratic reasons for McCain winding up dead on a Syria battlefield but, according to the Mother Jones article, this probably is the psychological backdrop:
“These young people seem to have what psychologists call a very strong ‘need for cognitive closure,’ a disposition that leads to an overwhelming desire for certainty, order, and structure in one's life to relieve the sensation of gnawing—often existential—doubt and uncertainty. According to Kruglanski, this need is something everyone can experience from time to time. We all sometimes get stressed out by uncertainty, and want answers. We all feel that way in moments, in particular situations, but what Kruglanski shows is that some of us feel that way more strongly, or maybe even all the time. And if you go through the world needing closure, it predisposes you to seek out the ideologies and belief systems that most provide it.
“Fundamentalist religions are among the leading candidates. Followers of militant Islam ‘know exactly what is right and what is wrong, how to behave in every situation,’ explains Kruglanski. ‘It's very normative and constraining, and a person who is a bit uncertain, has the need for closure, would be very attracted to an ideology of that kind.’ And for an outsider coming into Islam and drawn to that sense of certainty that it imparts, Kruglanski adds, you then want to prove yourself. To show your total devotion and commitment to the cause.”
There’s more in the article to think about, and a lot more in the podcast. See what you think. (On the topic of ISIS, John Kerry’s Op-ed piece in the New York Times is worth a read. Some will interpret it as a strategy to find a strategy; others will see it as a strategy to find a coalition.)
Kids and Uzis
Speaking of things that don’t make sense, Mother Jones also has an article titled, “How Does a 9-Year-Old Come to Shoot a Fully Automatic Weapon?” The question-and-answer-style piece is an attempt to give some explanation for how a little girl ended up firing an Uzi on an Arizona firing range last week and killed her instructor. The answer apparently goes no further than this: It was legal for the child’s parents to take her to the firing range to shoot an Uzi. Still, you might be left with the question: Does that make sense?
David Brooks has a piece in the New York Times about intellectual courage that amounts to a tip sheet for how to think: How to think honestly. How to think analytically. How to challenge one’s beliefs, and how to know when to change them or hold on to them.
The article is based on the 2007 book “Intellectual Virtues” by Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University and W. Jay Wood of Wheaton College, and you have to wonder if it should be passed around and memorized by the gridlocked group on Capitol Hill. Could a little intellectual honestly maybe – just maybe – result in a little compromise?
“(T)he mind is embedded in human nature, and very often thinking well means pushing against the grain of our nature — against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.”
This passage ties back to what Professor Kruglanski said above about Americans joining ISIS. People with that psychological profile are either incapable or unwilling to resist the “desire for certainty.”
A few words about Derek Jeter
If you are a baseball fan, you have to read Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker titled S’Long, Jeet. And if you’re not a baseball fan but savor poignant writing, then you have to read Angell’s piece. It’s a must-read in either case.
No, you don’t have to delay enjoying this. It is not one of those long, well-crafted New Yorker essays that take more time to read than most of us have. This a short, delicately woven essay that says so much in so few words. There’s mood, there’s rich, carefully selected description, there are relevant bits of history and there is a keen sense of the man, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, as he prepares to wrap up his 20th and final season in Major League Baseball.
A lot has been tapped out on keyboards about Jeter’s farewell tour, but you are unlikely to find any paragraphs that match this:
“We know Derek Jeter by heart, so why all this memorizing? The between-pitches bat tucked up in his armpit. The fingertip helmet-twiddle. The left front foot wide open, out of the box until the last moment, and the cop-at-a-crossing right hand ritually lifted astern until the foot swings shut. That look of expectation, a little night-light gleam, under the helmet. The pitch—this one a slow breaking ball, a fraction low and outside—taken but inspected with a bending bow in its passage. More. Jeter’s celebrity extends beyond his swing, of course, but can perhaps be summarized by an excited e-mail once received by a Brearley School teacher from one of her seventh graders: ‘Guess what! I just Googled ‘Derek’s butt!’’”
That’s only the first paragraph. And here’s the final paragraph:
“It’s sobering to think that in just a few weeks Derek Jeter won’t be doing any of this anymore, and will be reduced to picturing himself in action, just the way the rest of us do. On the other hand, he’s never complained, and he’s been so good at baseball that he’ll probably be really good at this part of it too.”
You don’t want to miss what’s in between.
As for those of you who know nothing about baseball and less about Jeter, remember, there still is the prose to be appreciated. Some writing is mechanical; some writing is artistic. This is the latter.
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