Radicalization

"The shooters in last week’s massacre here had been radicalized for 'some time' and methodically prepared for the attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Monday..."

That was the Wall Street Journal. Their verbiage is far from unusual; if you run a search for the phrase "shooters were radicalized," you'll come across plenty of references - CNN, ABC, Reuters, and so on. 

That verb, radicalized - that passive construction -  has been bothering me. It suggests infection, contamination. The radicalized person has undergone a lycanthropic transformation, from sensible member of society to homicidal nutjob, simply because someone spiked their comforting religion with the drug of extremism.  

I imagine that radicalized individuals feel anything but manipulated or deceived. I doubt they feel they've been acted upon by demonic external forces; they probably perceive themselves as smart, fortunate, or enlightened enough to be among the few who perceive the bitter truth. 

I'm sure there are many situations in which marginal (and marginalized) people are isolated and manipulated into violence. After all, we draw a surprising number of our cues for how to act from those around us, no matter how we may think we follow only our own moral compass. But we human beings have an extravagant, nearly delusional ability to believe that we are right, even people around us look at the same world and draw vastly different moral conclusions. Our brains operate in a rather stunning state of hubris.

When we speak of someone as being radicalized, we forget that they were probably doing what they believed was morally correct. How did they draw that conclusion? What other options were available to them in pursuit of the same goal? Is it our responsibility to try to understand them at all? Those are uncomfortable questions when you stridently disagree with the intended goals of the extremists, whether they are anti-abortion, anti-American, or anti-Muslim. But when we ask ourselves those questions, we take a step toward dismantling an environment in which extremism flourishes.