The Word 'Radicalization' Has Lost All Meaning. That's Very Dangerous | Opinion

In 2008, back when politics in America and Western Europe was polarized but not completely unhinged, the terrorism scholar Peter Neumann nicely summarized radicalization as "what goes on before the bomb goes off." While this left a lot of blanks to fill in, it had the distinct merit of underscoring the link between radicalization and political violence: If you want to figure out how someone commits an act of terrorism, you need to understand how, prior to this, they became convinced that killing people for politics is a good idea.

And it's this crucial link, between radicalization and violence, that today's public discourse has all but severed. If "radicalization" once meant the process by which someone embraces a violent ideology that commands them to wage war on civilians, it has now become a synonym for wrong-think. Once a description of the moment before physical violence, inextricably linked to real world, physical harm, radicalization now refers to anything on the wrong side of the reigning orthodoxy, something that does harm to nothing more than the sensibilities of those in power.

Anyone who cares about stopping actual violence must resist this corruption.

I can still remember a time when we used the word correctly. 15 years ago, when I asked my students to name a terrorist, the names that came up were Osama Bin Laden, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Hezbollah, Anders Breivik and "Jihadi John." All were mass-murderers who tried cloaking their violence in a righteous rhetoric of resistance.

In the past couple of years, I've noticed a shift. My students now routinely name Tony Blair and George W. Bush, and even more recently, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson (a British far-right activist). These are the new jackals of terrorism.

I don't blame my students for this. I, too, don't much like Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson. But is it really useful to include them in a pantheon of people who behead hostages, smash planes into buildings and cold-bloodedly gun down scores of school-children?

But my students aren't just overgeneralizing. The shift in who they identify as a terrorist speaks to a broader cultural shift where the concepts of violence, terrorism and radicalization have lost their meaning, which changes based on who is committing the act.

Take the concept of violence. Over the past year, it became clear that some highly credentialed people apparently believe that destroying someone's property and livelihood is not an act of violence, while at the same time insisting that words are acts of violence. Mystifyingly, these are often the same people who think that not using words is an act of violence.

The idea of terrorism has come in for similar treatment. There's now a whole subfield of academic inquiry—critical-terrorism studies—that "problematizes" the concept of terrorism, except when it's applied to the political violence of western nation-states.

Jake Angeli QAnon Shaman Capitol Protest
Protesters interact with Capitol Police inside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty

Radicalization has similarly come to mean everything and nothing: "The Problem," as a recent headline in Politico put it, "Isn't Just One Insurrection. It's Mass Radicalization." Trump's 74 million supporters are radicalized. Trump himself is radicalized: Apparently it was Fox News that did it. And Trump, in turn, is radicalizer-in-chief, transforming ordinary Americans into domestic terrorists.

The list goes on: Any American who believes in a conspiracy theory is radicalized. Teenage boys who say "triggered" are in the early stages of radicalization. The left, too, is radicalized. Young children are radicalized. Critics of covid-lockdown measures are radicalized. British politics is radicalized; Brexit did it, according to a CNN op-ed. Brexit itself was radicalized. And Joe Rogan, Bret Weinstein and Sam Harris are agents of radicalization.

And then there is the vast mass of people who aren't yet radicalized but could be at some unknown point in the future, those "at risk of radicalization": marginalized people, traumatized people, low self-esteem people, lonely people, people searching for an identity, people searching for love, meaning and belonging, people who beat their wives up, people who can't get laid.

So prevalent is the radicalization charge that you would think people are incentivized to hurl it around. You wouldn't be wrong: There is a whole industry that is parasitic on naming and classifying people as radicalized. It includes the mass media, which engorges itself on stories of radicalization. It includes academics like me who do research on radicalization. And it includes a whole edifice of counter-extremist entrepreneurs whose business model is to hype up existing threats and find news ones. Nobody in this game, if we're honest, has an interest in seeing radicalization go away. It's bad for business. We need radicalized people, and if we can't find them, we'll invent them.

The problem with this is that it makes it much harder for us to identify real cases of radicalization, by which I mean those instances where someone has come to embrace beliefs and sentiments that give them a cause or warrant for carrying out acts of murderous political violence. If everyone is radicalized, it becomes impossible to distinguish between those who are merely odious and hateful from those who, if they had the chance, skills and support, would like to slaughter you and me in our thousands.

And we urgently need to know the difference between the two.

In America, right now, the chief obstacle to this happening is the apocalyptic disgust that has overtaken and unhinged progressives and even some Republicans. It is not that the far-right isn't a threat to civil order and security in the US. It undoubtedly is. Rather, it is that the visceral revulsion that many progressives feel toward the far-right has led them to drastically over-inflate the actual threat it poses by suggesting it now eclipses the threat from global jihadists.

Consider, for example, the storming of the Capitol on 6 January. No doubt it was egregious. But its egregiousness cannot disguise the fact that it was as much a shit-show as an act of political violence. More than a security breach, it was a moral violation, a desecration that shamed America. A man called "Bigo" put his dirty feet up on Nancy Pelosi's nicely ordered desk. Other rioters smeared their dirty excrement on the walls. One person dubbed the "QAnon Shaman" was shirtless, revealing a rug of dirty chest-hair. You get my point: it was all very dirty.

But while the mainly working-class Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol were the apotheosis of matter out of place—boy, did they stink up the joint!—few carried guns into the Capitol, which must have seemed strange to those who insisted that the storming was a coup-attempt or insurgency; the only lethal weapon fired was at a Trump supporter.

So it wasn't the violent lethality of the protesters that caused the freak-out among progressives, who wasted no time in calling them domestic terrorists. It was, rather, their dirtiness, which was then transformed into dangerousness, all the better for flushing them out. At the same time, the discourse of danger served to mask the imperious revulsion that the elite Democrats felt toward Trump's seething, radicalized, dirty masses.

Despite the high-minded rhetoric, all the "reckonings" that are now going on in America are actually reckonings with dirt. No doubt some of Trump's followers are dangerous. But the real throb which animates the progressive response to his disgruntled base isn't really fear; it is disgust. It is the feeling of being contaminated and sullied by that which doesn't belong, which Trump really was all along.

And one prominent casualty of this is the concept of radicalization, which has now, for many, become a signifier of dirt.

We should resist this degradation of the concept, for if we extend radicalization to include everything foul and odious we perilously risk losing sight of the really lethal threats in our midst.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent, UK, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His latest book, Black Flags of the Caribbean: How Trinidad Became an ISIS Hotspot, is out with Bloomsbury.

The views in this article are the writer's own.