The psychology of racialist violence

Having now watched three movies about neo-nazis, I am compelled to seek to understand why smart people get sucked into racist ideologies. The movies in question are American History X (1998), the Believer (2001) and Steel Toes (2006), and I recommend all of them to the observer of modern racism (who is not squeamish).

Each movie centers on a single, articulate, young neo-nazi who commits acts of violence against racial minorities. Each movie outlines why the young man in question is a neo-nazi. Their arguments are well presented. They have clear reasons for hating. After all the arguments about why Jews, blacks and all other non WASPs are bad, it is essential that we look beyond words to see why people hate those who are different.

The young men all had a sense that they were losing something, that their society was headed in the wrong direction because it was being contaminated by inferior races. Derek in American History X said that every problem in the US is race related; Michael in Steel Toes believed we were losing our superior, white, Canadian way of life to immigrants; and Daniel in the Believer declared confidently that spiritual life comes from race, and thought that the modern world is a Jewish disease where that spiritual life was being sucked away. (They are not the only ones who believe they are losing their world. Robert Pape has found that nearly all suicide bombings are motivated by foreign occupation. A study by the think tank Demos found much the same.) But all generations seem to have a feeling that something is lost, and that the world is not what it used to be. Why do these boys blame minorities?

Perhaps we are living in a new age of minorities. At one time in Europe, the minority, if there was one, was the easily-scapegoated Jew, Gypsy, or Huguenot. Now, minorities come from every country and bring their cultures, languages and skin colours with them. Because more rapid social change than ever before is occurring alongside more immigration than ever before, it is easy to conflate the two. Our supposedly sacred ways of life are changing, and the culprits could not possibly be in our group. Violence, segregation, deportation all seem reasonable when viewed through the warped prism of convenient blame.

For a second explanation of how these characters turned into radicals, let us consider what I call “opinion creep“, how we choose one path in our thinking and follow it until our opinions become extreme. Perhaps these people are simply victims of opinion creep. Opinion creep might also be what enables us to hold contrary beliefs, such as that the Jews instigated communism and yet control the world’s banking system. It sends our emotions spiraling down to the evils of our nature and can lead us to obsess over people we do not even know or understand.

Hatred is a natural feeling that any of us can fall victim to. Hate is anger with a direction. It can come easily when the objects are dehumanised, considered less deserving of respect than those in our exclusive group. Stereotyping simplifies the other and simplifies hatred of the other by turning him into a one-dimensional caricature of his group. The arguments against Jews, for instance, refer to them collectively, to say what they are and are not, imposing square pegs of what people are in round holes of what they could be. Uncomfortable with ambiguity, which might mean that we accept that everyone is sufficiently different to defy stereotype, we package things for our own convenience and lose understanding in the process. Sherif (1937) likened this removal of ambiguity to the slogans and propaganda that dehumanised the enemy and fired up the masses in the fascist movements of his time. By repeating canards about who the enemy is, we form images that fill us with hate.

Violence, likewise, is a powerful drive within us. In his excellent book on collectivist violence Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff explains

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

[T]here is a deep connection between violence and belonging. The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence, because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience: if a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives them a reason to kill.

This drive to violence, especially on behalf of one’s group, may be carried out with the intention of domination. Those with authoritarian leanings are more ethnocentric and prone to prejudice (Altemeyer, 1996). Many such people endorse the myths that explain why one group dominates another in society, and either are afraid to lose their position at the top, as Michael in Steel Toes was, or aspire to reach the top (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999). They feel no reason to share society’s resources equally when they have reasons to believe others are less deserving. Moreover, the same people may see the world as either threatening or a competitive jungle where dominance is natural and desirable (Duckitt, 2003).

One final source of violence and hatred is internal conflict. The Believer, in particular, showed Daniel’s deep conflict between his past–a Jew, born and raised–and his present–a Jew-hating skinhead. While leading in the desecration of a synagogue, Daniel picks up a Torah scroll, takes it home and repairs it because of what it had once meant to him. Michael forcefully declares his membership in the Aryan Nation and then breaks down in guilt after reading that the man he assaulted died and yet bears him no ill will. He could not handle the human consequences of what his ideology proposes.

Another thing each movie had in common was to juxtapose the protagonist’s present life as a skinhead with an innocent youth, spent running and laughing and playing. One clear lesson from all three films was that hatred and violence do not lead to fulfillment, wisdom or happiness. They only lead to pain.

How to destroy the PKK

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has just extended a ceasefire it declared in August. The Turkish government seems in a conciliatory mood, at least toward the PKK (though not toward Israel). We could be at a peaceful crossroads. But there are signs that might not be so.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has usually adopted a tough stance toward the PKK, perhaps most starkly in 2008 with his willingness to break international law and intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge the deaths of Turkish soldiers. He has been courting Syria, presumably with a view to isolating the PKK diplomatically. (The PKK received ideological support, training and arms from Syria during the Cold War.) The ceasefire might not hold, and might not be worth the breath that produced it: clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have not ended. Commentator Ali Bulaç considers all this activity a sign that Erdoğan is trying to vanquish the PKK, whether militarily, diplomatically or legally, but that doing so is impossible without addressing “the major sources of the Kurdish issue”.

It is likely the PKK is no longer fighting to secede from Turkey. There is already a nearly-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Furthermore, the PKK seem to be holding out for amnesty, rather than independence. In fact, if one is to believe Erdoğan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad, amnesty is on the table. But, beholden to an angry Turkish public weighing its options for the next election (scheduled for July 2011), Turkey’s ruling AKP may still have no appetite for measures of rapprochement. Moreover, the AKP recently achieved constitutional amendments limiting the power of the military in Turkish politics. The military is not averse to seizing power again, however (it was only earlier this year 20 senior officers were charged with plotting a coup), and in all likelihood the generals will want Erdoğan to stay truculent. If it is unwilling to compromise, the Turkish state might instead push to continue the war.

The war option

One lesson that could be drawn from last year’s utter defeat of the Tamil Tigers is that separatist-terrorist groups can be defeated if they are corralled and crushed militarily. But the Sri Lankan army cornered the Tigers by pushing them onto a beach at the north of the island. The PKK, by contrast, live somewhere in the formidable mountains in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq. Without, say, extensive helicopter warfare, locating and beating the PKK is next to impossible.

Before the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK successfully committed raids in Turkish territory, killing more than 80 Turkish soldiers this year and blowing up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest crude oil export lines. Can they be trusted never to attack again? And barely a month before the ceasefire, Erdoğan had declared “they will drown in their own blood.” Is there any reason to think he has softened since then?

Turkey wants to be accepted by Western Europe, and it wants to destroy the PKK. Though the politics of the recognition of the PKK mean that many EU states and possibly the EU institutions themselves would not look kindly on destroying the group, that could change. Politics tends to have a short memory: destroy the PKK now, turn the attention of the state’s security policy to other things and within a few years, the only criticism will continue to get will be from powerless European Kurds who cling to faith in an independent Kurdistan. Considering that it customarily gets criticised for taking action against the PKK, the Turkish state might do well to end the conflict now, by fair means or foul, and restart reconciliation with estranged Turkish Kurds.

Ahmet Türk, a politician of Kurdish origin, warns against continuing the war. “If the army operations continue and the ceasefire is ignored,” he says, “it will not only cause grave harm to Kurds but to the whole Turkish public.” We have seen how angry the conflict makes Turkish nationalists and how Kurds have suffered from the PKK. This ceasefire, if that is what it is, is an opportunity to stop the pointless killing.

Funerals, the Turkish public and war with the PKK

Anti-PKK demonstration in Turkey

For the past two decades, the Turkish military has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group once fighting for independence from Turkey for the nation’s Kurds (but now probably just fighting for amnesty). The conflict has become a drawn out war of attrition, and some 40,000 have been killed. Some of the 40,000 have been Turkish soldiers. We see in Turkish public reaction to the killing of Turkish soldiers a hardening and increased polarisation of attitudes, a push for an escalation of the fighting against the terrorists. This reaction can be found at the soldiers’ funerals.

Like most modern nationalists, Turkish nationalists consider Turkey’s territorial integrity inviolable. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey (Atatürk means father of the Turks), laid out the principles of the new Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and one of them was complete independence and sovereignty over the land Turkey covers. Moreover, while Turkey comprises some 73 ethnic groups, they are all considered Turks. Ethnic Kurds, whose ethnic consciousness stretches back before the 20th century, and who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, had their dreams of independence turned down. Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, stated “Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.” Any movement perceived as inimical to the homogenisation of Turkey’s people and the unity of its borders needed to be crushed. The Turkish military would ensure, and die for, this principle. When soldiers die defending nationalist principles, nationalists grieve.

Though different cultures face death differently, such grieving mechanisms as crying, fear and anger are universal. People most commonly go through feelings of shock, disbelief and numbness, then guilt, attempting to comprehend the death, and in the end, recovery. Funerals take place near the beginning of this process, when people are still shocked, afraid, angry and ready to point fingers. Far from being a catharsis, funerals may fuel anger at the perpetrator. For years now, funerals for Turkish soldiers have become rallying grounds for expressions of anti-PKK sentiment.

In September 2006, dozens of Turkish soldiers died in skirmishes with the PKK in the latter’s one time stronghold, the southeast of Turkey. At the funeral of one soldier, thousands of people protested. The protest was as much pressure on the Turkish authorities to act as it was protest against the PKK. The government had recently introduced legal reforms proposed to let the air out of some Kurdish grievances, but they may have been too little, too late. The reforms may also have been merely cosmetic, designed to appease the European Union but do nothing to stop terrorism. An election was ten months away, and no party expecting to win could afford to look soft on terror.

October 2007 saw more fighting and killing between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Headlines in Turkey declared that the PKK wanted to split Turkey, they wanted war, they wanted to damage Turkey as much as possible. During one soldier’s funeral in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, 10,000 people are said to have paralysed traffic to protest and, in effect, demand military action against, the PKK. “We are all soldiers, we will smash the PKK“, they chanted in front of a mosque. Government and military officials attended the funerals, which were held 11 provinces in Turkey and broadcast live on several television stations. About a fifth of the population of a town southeast of Ankara demonstrated, shouting “the martyrs are immortal, the motherland is indivisible,” and “hang Apo”, the PKK’s jailed founder and leader. Each protest reflected and spurred a rising anti-PKK (and inevitably among some, anti-Kurd) nationalism in Turkey.

As a result of this pressure, along with political battles also taking place at the time, Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant the military greater freedom in the war on the PKK and approve of incursion into northern Iraq, where the PKK were hiding out. On February 21, 2008, between 3000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers deployed in the region in Turkey’s biggest offensive in a decade. (See more on the incursion here.) But the violence did not abate, and five months after the conclusion of hostilities, the PKK struck again, this time on a street in Istanbul. Such incessant terrorism leads quite easily to the feeling among Turks that the terrorists are insatiable and will stoop to any level.

I should note that anti-Kurdish racism is not exploding. A survey of Turks and Kurds in 2009 found most willing to have the other marry into their families. Moreover, terrorism was not the most important issue to those surveyed–it was third, after the economy and unemployment. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government to act to end the war has not ended.

Attacks have occurred more recently (see here and here, for example). One online Turkish news outlet describes the soldiers killed and their funerals. At one, thousands of people, including senior military officers, attended. The crowd chanted “the homeland is indivisible” and “Kurds and Turks are brothers, separatists are hypocrites”. Eight Army Corps Commander Mustafa Korkut Özarslan spoke at the funeral, vowing that the Turkish army would never allow the PKK to achieve its goals. The people of Turkey are not about to let this conflict end inconclusive.