The Psychology of the Extremist

In Orlando Florida, on Sunday, June 12, 2016, a man whose name I will not dignify by using it anywhere in this article entered a club and opened fire, killing 49 Americans and wounding 53 more. He claimed ISIS sympathies. He was put down by responding police officers (Stapleton & Ellis, 2016).  What would make someone do this? The psychological boundaries that one has to cross to kill one person, let alone dozens, are considerable. It is hypothesized that human beings have an innate resistance to killing other human beings, and furthermore, even members of the same species are resistant to killing other members of their own species (Grossman, 2009). Adding to this resistance are consequences of one’s actions, such as criminal prosecution, incarceration, or capital punishment. There are social barriers such as shunning and rejection, internal psychological barriers such as guilt, shame, remorse, and spiritual barriers such as conscience, and fear of accountability and punishment in the afterlife. There are logistical problems to overcome, such as getting weapons and ammo, concealing them, transporting them, surveilling the intended target, and planning the attack. This entire planning process is also an ongoing opportunity to reconsider one’s actions and not go forward.

Understanding Psychopathy

A psychopath, aka a sociopath, aka the Antisocial personality, is an individual who is indifferent to right and wrong, who habitually violates the rights of others, and feels no remorse, guilt, or regret as a result. They dominate others, manipulate and deceive those who they feel they cannot dominate, and are literally against society. They are against rules, social norms, and the law. It is unclear if they are born that way, or if their environment molds them into this. As with nearly all aspects of human behavior, psychopathy is the outcome of genetics, environment, and free will. There is no medication or psychotherapeutic method to cure psychopathy. They are the terminally ill of clinical psychology. The only thing that can be done is to contain them, through either incarceration, or monitoring and supervision in the community, with the promise of prompt removal from society if they cannot regulate themselves. They live among us, and are estimated to make up about 4% of the population (Porter, 2014, 2016). Not all psychopaths are criminals, as least not as labeled by the criminal justice system. Many skirt the edges of the law with everyday heinous behavior that is not illegal, but violates social norms of decency and fairness. As all human behavior is molded and shaped by the social environment, a consideration is what if a psychopath encounters an environment where they can give in to their worst behaviors and be even further justified through political ideology, and any hesitation through fear of consequences in this life or the next were to be negated, and social approval from the fringe group were to be offered? This is the lure of extremism.

The development of Extremism

Extremism may not only effect psychopaths, but mindless followers- sheep, lemmings, those who have abdicated their own free will and given themselves over to the will of others, and those who do not have the ability to analyze and evaluate information critically, and have no guidance from more prosocial sources. One theory is that those who are uneducated or poor gravitate toward extremism. Living in the day-to-day misery, deprivation, and hopelessness of poverty can lead even moral people to take desperate actions, to relieve the suffering of themselves and their families. Radical Islamic extremists can use and victimize these people by offering them the promise of power, recognition and respect in this life, and eternal abundance and comfort in the next life. What they are really going to deliver is even more suffering, hardship, pain and death to people already suffering, as they use them for their own demented ends.   This is the apparent dynamic in some regions, such as Tunisia, (Masi, 2016) but not in others, where those who are radicalized tend to be in a college educated and middle class demographic (PragerU, 2015). In areas where ISIS recruits are educated and wealthier, other causes have been identified. Georgetown University professor Haroon Ullah while living in Pakistan identified the following factors in the recruitment and radicalization of people to ISIS:

  • Desire for meaning and order
  • Escape from chaos and corruption
  • Simplified and singular solutions to complex problems
  • Blaming others for their nation’s self-created problems

(PragerU, 2015).

ISIS excels at the use of social media in their recruiting. Berger (2016) identified a five-part process in on-line recruitment and indoctrination:

  1. Discovery:  ISIS identifies a potential recruit, or a potential recruit reaches out to ISIS.
  2. Create Micro-Community: ISIS supporters bombard the potential recruit with propaganda and doctrine.
  3. Isolation:  Potential recruits are encouraged to sever their connections with mainstream, moderate sources of input.
  4. Shift to Private Communications: Potential recruits are led into private or encrypted on-line communication.
  5. Identify and Encourage Action: ISIS supporters evaluate what level of  involvement a recruit can be expected to engage in – e.g., domestic terror, or traveling to ISIS held territories to fight (Berger, 2016).

What can be done to discourage recruitment into extremism?  

As any problem rooted in human behavior, there are multiple complexities to consider. There have already been the predictable calls for stricter gun control within days, if not hours of the shooting. This is a very simplistic proposal, focusing on a singular facet of the problem of violent expressed extremism. Once again, virtually all efforts at gun control are based on an underlying fallacy: that criminals will obey the law. Better questions are would armed security have made a difference? Or armed civilians in the club?

The overall picture and the inherent complexities in the development of extremism must be a part of the discussion. While I am an obvious advocate of armed citizens, this can be a part of the answer, but not the only answer. The presence of armed civilians or law enforcement can deter aggression, or displace it to a more vulnerable target. An armed citizen or police officer taking down a shooter is damage control at best. Preventing the shooter from getting into the mindset where he (or she) will carry out an act of violence is the starting point. A citizenry that had a mindset of awareness of their surroundings and potential threats, realistic (read not paranoid) assessment and recognition of threats, and having a plan in place in the event of an active shooter are also considerations (Porter, 2016a).

In a marvelously straightforward and eloquent YouTube presentation, Professor Ullah offered some of the following methods to curtail extremist recruitment:

  1. Look to more complex causes besides poverty and ignorance as the root of extremism.
  2. Reveal the true motives and outcomes of extremist groups to potential recruits as those who will perpetuate suffering rather than relieve it.
  3. The media needs to stop glorifying ISIS killers as freedom fighters. They free no one; they oppress and enslave all those who live in the territories they capture.
  4. More responsibility and vigilance among parents and teachers against religious extremist ideology.
  5. Nations need to stop blaming the West for their own economic and political problems stemming from internal corruption.
  6. Islamic spiritual leaders need to teach that murdering civilians will result in eternal punishment, not reward (PragerU, 2015).


The attraction that some people have toward extremism is multi-factorial, which means this is a complex problem requiring a variety of solutions. As law-abiding armed citizens, educating yourself on these issues and staying abreast of current information on this topic is time well spent.


Berger, J.M. (2015). How terrorists recruit online (and how to stop it). Brookings. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from

Grossman, D. (2009). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Back Bay: NY.

Masi, A. (2016). ISIS, Extremists Recruit The Young Unemployed And Underpaid In Tunisia. Insider Business Time. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from

Porter, D.A. (2016). Thoughts on the Antisocial Personality. DAP Consulting: Burlington, VT.

Porter, D.A. (2016a). Lock Down Or Evacuate – What’s Your Evacuation Drill? GCMA. Retrieved June 24, 2016 from

Porter, D.A. (2014). Antisocial Personality Disorder DSM-5 301.7 (F60.2). Retrieved June 21, 2016 from–5-301.7-(F60.2)

PragerU. (2015). Why Do People Become Islamic Extremists? YouTube. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from

Stapleton A.C., and Ellis, R. (2016). Timeline of Orlando nightclub shooting. CNN. Retrieved June 21, 2016 from


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