The Psychology of Political Extremism: Oslo, Norway another casualty of terrorism

I am sad today to write about the terrorism attack in Oslo, Norway yesterday, July 22nd, 2011; the worse attack in Norway since World War II. Political extremism seems to be the reason for this attack, an all too familiar problem today.

The alleged suspect, thirty-two year old Anders Behring Breivik, a described right-wing extremist, was reported to be disturbed at Norway’s lax immigration standards. Story: Norway attack: Right-wing extremism emerging?

There are indeed social and cultural, religious and political reasons for activating one’s extreme beliefs into political violence. Nonetheless, the psychology of the person is where extreme thinking begins.

We can all have extreme beliefs. Some of us are extreme in views of parenting, in diet, and in our political and religious viewpoints. These beliefs often form the things for which we feel passionate. And, when push comes to shove, we maintain, these beliefs are the right way to do things, the right viewpoints to hold. Our beliefs feel that real to us.

But, is this enough to rally political violence in most of us? Thank goodness, no. It’s our level of awareness of our belief, as just a belief and not reality, tolerance for others’ points of views, and empathy for others that largely determines how we express beliefs in the world.

These three areas of mental and emotional development help us to constructively interact and problem-solve. They permit us to check out our ideas with reality and make adjustments if needed. While lack of this development may ready one more easily to violence there are certainly many other factors that come into play that lead one to terrorism, like the degree of social alienation and dissatisfaction one feels and the extent to which one supports his extreme political views with what’s happening in the world.

Without a good ability to test out our ideas with reality, tolerate viewpoints, and have empathy for others, our reasoning is off-center. When combined with a pathological need to have reality conform to one’s inner world of ideas it can be a lethal combination. Anders Behring Breivik tweeted on July 17th of this year, “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100000 who have only interests.”

If this is the same Mr. Breivik who carried out the attack on Oslo, Norway yesterday, it may be that Mr. Breivik’s killing rampage was a willful act to turn his inner world into reality. This is how terrorists wish to change the world.

I’m saying that participating constructively in a democracy requires a certain level of psychological development. Perhaps, we need to court our psychological development as strongly as we do education so that we can influence change without having to destroy others. Just food for thought, today.


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