The Political Psychology
of Political Extremists
Immediately after the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing, Americans asked themselves, Who could commit such a violent act? Were Arab terrorists to blame? Or had some other group committed this act? When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were apprehended, many Americans had their first glimpse of men who would go to extremes because of their political ideas. Words like militias and patriots became part of our vocabularies. And more and more we wanted to understand these men. Were McVeigh and Nichols monsters or sociopaths, were they simply insane, or were they normal? How could a normal person commit such a horrific act?
Extremist groups have many different views and perspectives, as well as agendas. There are many extremist groups, in the United States alone. They are as diverse as White supremacist organizations such as the Aryan Nations, Ku Klux Klan, the National Alliance, and Spokane Skins; sovereign citizens who do not believe in the legitimacy of the federal government; and militias such as the Michigan Militia, whose members train so that they can defend the United States from the new world order. There are also tax protestors, antienvironmental and antiabortion extremists, terrorists, and gangs. Some extremist groups are associated with political parties, and some are just political parties.
Extremist groups are not only found in the United States, but also in other parts of the world. Other countries have their share of terrorist organizations (such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland), government sanctioned and unsanctioned paramilitaries/death squads (such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), and many racist groups, such as the National Front political party in France. As in the case of the United States, some of these groups are associated with political parties, others are not, and some are political parties. In addition, many have transnational contacts with one another (Kaplan & Weinberg, 1998). Often, extremists are also portrayed as members of the radical right, but it is important to note that although many extremist groups are found on the right of the ideological spectrum, plenty of groups are also found on the left of that spectrum. The actions of political extremists can range from bombing a building known to be empty to targeting an entire group of people for mass extermination, that is, genocide.
In this chapter, we present case studies of extremist groups. We examine racist groups in the United States, terrorist groups, terror committed by governments against their own people, paramilitaries/death squads, and the perpetrators of genocide. One of the central themes of this chapter is that political psychological studies of such people demonstrate that, under the right circumstances, the most ordinary people can be the perpetrators of extremist actions, or they can be passive bystanders who watch while such acts are carried out and do nothing to stop them. What is an extremist and what makes a person an extremist? An extremist is a person who is
exces sive and inappropriately enthusiastic and/or inappropriately concerned with significant life purposes, implying a focused and highly personalized interpretation of the