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Understanding the psychological and behavioral factors of individuals who are prone to committing acts of terrorism could be the key to learning how to minimize the receptivity of these individuals and the organizations that fuel and recruit them. The purpose of this paper is to examine the premise that exposure to online Neo Nazi internet, discontent with the political process and his ideology where contributing factors in Robert Bowers decision to turn to lone wolf terrorism. This will be determined by analyzing published articles and research conducted online (Internet) on the psychological and behavioral factors of individual terrorists in the past and how it relates to the psychological tendencies Robert Bowers may have shown.
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On the morning of October 27, 2018 during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue, a gunman entered and began spraying bullets at the crowd of innocent worshippers. According to reports, Robert Bowers a 46-year-old Caucasian male who entered the Synagogue, armed with one assault rifle and three handguns, shot at the crowd just after he screamed antisemitic epithets (Hayes, Johnson & Woodall, 2018). After the twenty-minute attack Bowers surrendered after a shootout with police where he was shot several times. Law enforcement reported that while receiving medical care after the shoot out, he told a SWAT officer that he wanted “all Jews to die” and that “Jews where committing genocide to his people” according to the criminal report (Quin 2018). Upon further investigations into Bowers’ personal life it was found that just before entering the building, Bowers posted an anti-Semitic message to the website Gab, a fringe social media website utilized in large part by white nationalists and members of the far-right (Haye, Johnson & Woodall, 2018) Upon further investigations into Robert Bowers’ home and personal life it was found that he was actively apart of several online forums that supported white-nationalist views, alt-right and antisemitic ideologies.
Almost all ideologies have a political basis, and while civilized as we think we are in this day and age, political, religious, and ideological rifts are still prevalent and growing and the side effects of this will always produce terrorists. Discontent with the recent political process Robert Bowers took to social media and internet-based Neo Nazi blogs to voice his frustrations. On morning before Bowers started his attack, he posted to Gab: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit back and watch our people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in. According to reports Bowers seemingly blamed an entire faith of people, Jewish, for this particular muddying of his ideological government (Quinn, Shallwani, Bekiempis, & Keppler, 2018) This is idea can be applied to almost any ideological group conflict such as “Muslims and Westerners”, Palestinians and Iraqis, The KKK, white nationalists and almost the entire history of segregation of African Americans within the United States. And while these groups aren’t formally politically affiliated, it is without a doubt that all of these conflicts eventually stem from perceived political turmoil or socio-economic turmoil.
A study by Jay Van Bavel and colleagues has shown that empathy can not only create bias but empathy within a social group could promote the “us” against “them” mentality. Jay Van Bavel theorizes that “the pull from in-group empathy to harm the out-group, and the weaker the pull from out-group empathy to prevent this, the stronger the overall motivation to engage in or condone intergroup aggression” (Van Bavel JJ, Packer DJ, Cunningham WA, 2008 Nov;19). This idea reverberates in Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s studies that proved virtually any individual, under the right circumstances, could be led down the road to extreme violence. Specific examples of this can be seen in the old “mob mentality” idea or most recently the violence that was seen during the 2016 Presidential rallies where seemingly normal members of society began to show aggression and often times obvious violence to individuals who disagrees with them.
Exposure to Neo-Nazi media online was a contributing factor in Bowers becoming a lone wolf terrorist. The lure of terror usually begins with the feeling of being helpless or betrayed by the very things or organizations which that person held close and believed in only to see that institution become corrupted and diluted by other outside influences. A study by Milgram and Zimbardo suggests that extremists aren’t born, they are made due to ideological divisions among groups that eventually extremists will seek to exploit for their own means (Blass,1991). Conservative, alt-right, and white-supremacist movements was a possible contributing factor in Bowers’ path to becoming a lone wolf terrorist. Robert Bowers posts leading up to and just before the attack suggest his hateful worldview and his motivation to kill. Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism, is one of several models that offer a psychological explanation to the process of why and how a member of society would turn to extreme measures such as terrorism. This source touched on the different types of radicalization theories and how terrorists seem to find inspiration from hate rhetoric and politically charged unrest surrounding them (King, Taylor, 2011).
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Dr. Bruneau’s work revolves around the notion that humans inherently and instinctively gravitate towards belonging to a group. This stems from the evolutionary trait humans and several other species use as a safety mechanism and so doing the individual will identify and attempt to conform with a group in order to feel as if they belong and instinctively seek the safety of a group (Bruneau, 2016). Thus, Bowers involvement in online groups and open forums such as “GAB” allowed him to voice his antisemitic opinions as well as feed into the paranoia of others with the similar views. Jeff Victoroff Suggests the history of terrorism and correlates to certain repetitive psychological behaviors and motives seen within a terrorist’s mindset. Victoroff claims that “preliminary reports suggest that modifiable social and psychological factors contribute to the genesis of the terrorist mind-set” (Victoroff, 2005). This could suggest that outside social and psychological influences contributed to Robert Bowers decision to take matters into his own hands. Exposure to negative influencers such as neo-Nazi, white nationalist, and anti-Semitic conspiracies online contributed and had a negative effect on Robert Bowers psyche. Not only does Victoroff show how these influencers directly have an effect on those prone to terrorism but how it can be prevented by closely studying signs associated with terrorist behaviors in hopes of stopping attacks before they can occur.
In the past and present individual terrorists were deemed psychologically, emotionally and behaviorally challenged sadists, with a penchant for senseless destruction due to ignorance. Most notably, recent research has indicated individuals who join in terrorist activity whether it be as a lone wolf or within a radical group, show psychopathology that is no more different than anyone else and is as economically comfortable and educated as their surrounding populations. Robert Bowers had an ideology he was significantly driven by. He spent a lot of time on social media blogs that fueled his hate causing him to eventually act on those frustrations. These views had such an impact on Bowers’ that he may have felt it was his duty to do something about it. Unfortunately, his views may have come from a misinformed place. Rather than attempting to exploit people’s fears for political gain future leaders must defuse extremist views and promote future phycological research in order to help understand and prevent the making of more terrorists.
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