Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Generalization: Right-Wing Terrorism Edition

An op-ed in the New York Times generated some discussion online today for its implication, without much in the way of clear supporting data, that veterans could be particularly inclined to join white supremacist movements.

In discussions of radicalization, there is an all-too-common framing problem. For instance, a disproportionate number of Western jihadists are converts to Islam, but very few converts to Islam become involve in terrorism. It is correct to say Western jihadists are more likely to be converts, but it is not correct to say converts to Islam are likely to become jihadists. Only a fraction of 1 percent of converts follow that path.

Similarly, military veterans -- not just Americans -- figure prominently in many terrorist organizations -- not just white supremacists. Most research approaches to studying extremism will find a disproportionate number of veterans involved in case studies under review. But that doesn't mean veterans are likely to become extremists.

In addition to the framing problem -- all salmon are fish, but fish are not therefore especially likely to be salmon -- there is also a selection bias problem. Veterans have training and experience in military activity. It's natural that they would stand out in organizations with a paramilitary flavor -- especially in the data sets that most journalists, law enforcement officers and academics consider, indictments and convictions. Extremist organizations focus on recruiting veterans precisely for their skills.

Veterans also get experience in leadership roles -- they are disproportionately represented in politics, and extremism is ultimately a form of politics. So vets often rise to the higher echelons of political organizations and thus become more visible to researchers, compared to people in the lower ranks whose demographics remain obscure.

Just as it's woefully inefficient to broad targeting  all Muslim converts in a search for violent jihadists, it's unhelpful to broadly target veterans in a search for violent right-wing extremists. It's useful to understand how military experience comes into play during radicalization and within extremist organizations, but we have to be careful to get the frame right.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam