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The Origins of the Fundamentalist Mindset

The Fundamentalist Mindset sheds light on the psychology of fundamentalism, with a particular focus on those who become extremists and fanatics.  The collection is edited by 9780195379662Charles B. Strozier, a Professor of History at John Jay College, CUNY, and a practicing psychoanalyst, David M. Terman, Director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, James W. Jones, a Professor of Religion and adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University and Katharine A. Boyd a doctoral student at John Jay College, CUNY.  In the excerpt below, taken from an essay entitled “The Social Psychology of Humiliation and Revenge: The Origins of the Fundamentalist Mindset” by Bettina Muenster and David Lotto, we learn about what drove one young man to extremism.

In April 2007, on a seemingly normal day for college students at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a young man of Asian descent, Cho Seung-Hui, decided to kill as many people on campus as he could.  He was determined, fully prepared, and utterly devoid of doubt about the moral implications of his actions.  In fact the slaughter was so calculated that the twenty-three-year-old scheduled time to videotape himself for forty-five minutes in a van outside the shooting range when he practiced there a month before the shootings.  After killing two students on the early morning of April 19 he returned to his room to access some photo files, then decided to walk to the local post office to overnight a rather comprehensive package of videos, photographs, and statements to the NBC news network.  About two and half hours later he resumed his rampage.  In four classrooms he killed another twenty-five students and five teachers, firing 175 rounds of ammunition.

The costs of the murders to Cho were high: he spent thousands of dollars, according to the New York Times, and sacrificed much of his time and finally his own life.  But to him it was all worth it.  Consumed by rage over the way society treated him and evidently feeling like an outsider who did not get the respect he deserved, he chose solitude and seemed invisible for most of his life.  In fact he had no social bonds whatsoever-no friends, no girlfriend, or close connection with relatives.  The statements he sent to the media and the world are particularly disturbing:

I didn’t have to do this.  I could have left.  I could have fled.  But no, I will no longer run….You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience….You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today.  But you decided to spill my blood.  You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.  The decision was yours.  Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.

How can someone who callously killed thirty-two innocent people claim that others are at fault?  In terms of blame attribution, Cho’s rationalization of his actions sounds exactly like that of the terrorist Osama bin Laden, who justified the September 11 killing of some three thousand civilians by arguing that he felt similarly cornered: “The Western regimes and the government of the United States of America bear the blame for what might happen.”  Recent studies on school shootings reveal some astonishingly common characteristics: excerpt for one of fifteen investigated, all shooters were male; a majority experienced chronic or acute humiliation, mostly through more or less cruel rejection and social exclusion by others; many exhibited narcissistic tendencies; and most had an obsession with firearms and explosives.  The authors of one study concluded, “The typical shooter is a male student who has been ostracized by the majority group at his school for some time, and has been chronically taunted, teased, harassed, and often publicly humiliated.”  Social humiliation is associated with retaliatory behavior, even at additional cost to the retaliator, as has been demonstrated by Brown in his classic study.  When humiliated, individuals and groups seem to have a particular appetite for revenge.  The self, it is feared, will never be the same unless such injustice is appropriately addressed.  What renders humiliation such a dangerous source for generating violence is the fact that such experiences are often fueled by long-lasting and extremely negative emotions.  To exemplify the complexity of the humiliation phenomenon we present a brief review of the concept of humiliation using a number of theories from social, existential, and psychoanalytic psychology, and then demonstrate how cultural, social, and psychological forces may combine to trigger the fundamentalist mindset.

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