Unstable employment, criminality, radical peers: Why does extreme political violence happen?

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Accused in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting could face death penalty: U.S. attorney
U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said Sunday that Robert Bowers, the man accused in the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, faces 29 federal charges, including two counts which are "punishable by death." – Oct 28, 2018

“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

So reads a social media post that has been linked to Robert Bowers, suspect in the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue that killed 11 people on Saturday morning.

Coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on

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And that’s just one of a series of anti-Semitic posts on the website that have been attributed to the 46-year-old man, who could now face the death penalty in connection with a shooting that saw victims killed who ranged in age from 54 to 97 years old.

The posts, which have been closely connected to Bowers if not exactly confirmed to be his, suggest an extremist agenda that saw him promote neo-Nazi slogans.

Those slogans included “1488,” a number representing the white supremacist “14 words” phrase as well as “88,” numbers which express the eighth letter of the alphabet and an abbreviation signifying “Heil Hitler.”

Other posts have seen him call U.S. President Donald Trump a “globalist, not a nationalist” and add that “there is no #MAGA” due to what he called a Jewish “infestation.”

READ MORE: What we know about Robert Bowers, suspect in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

The shooting came in the same week that Cesar Sayoc was arrested in connection with explosive devices that had been sent to Trump critics including ex-president Barack Obama, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and current Democratic Sen. Cory Booker.

Pictures of Sayoc’s van showed slogans such as “CNN sucks” and images of Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence.

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Such incidents have people asking what’s driving extremist political violence across the U.S.

Research published earlier this year has some ideas.

In this Oct. 27, 2018 photo, Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

A study titled “Correlates of Violent Political Extremism in the United States” was published in the academic journal Criminology in February.

Published by the American Society of Criminology, it aimed to apply criminological theories to instances of political extremism – something few scholars had done before.

The authors used data on 1,473 people from Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) to test factors that contribute to extremism.

These people had been radicalized in the U.S. between 1948 and 2013.

They were included after “committing ideologically motivated illegal violent or nonviolent acts, joining a designated terrorist organization, or associating with organizations whose leaders have been indicted of ideologically motivated violent offences.”

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READ MORE: Documents reveal internal debate over threat of Canadian right wing extremism

The authors wanted to test the relationship between violent extremism and hypotheses around 11 factors: people’s employment history, education, marital status, military experience, whether they had radical peers and family, a history of mental illness, whether they were in competition with rival groups, as well as their criminal backgrounds, gender and age.

These relationships were tested through bivariate (looking at two variables) and multivariate (looking at four variables) analyses.

The bivariate analysis found positive relationships between violent extremism and nine out of the 11 factors, with varying significance.

This image shows a portion of an archived webpage from the social media website Gab, with a Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 posting by Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers. HIAS, mentioned in the posting, is a Maryland-based nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. AP Photo

Individuals who had stable employment, higher education and solid marriages were “significantly less likely to be engaged in violent radical extremism,” the study found.”

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Meanwhile, those who had radical family or peers were “significantly more likely to be engaged in violent political extremism.”

The finding about radical peers may be surprising, given that certain extremists carry out what are called “lone wolf” attacks.

The study cited 2015 research showing that “lone actors often establish close relationships, both virtual and face to face, with peers who contribute to their movement toward violence.”

People who had histories of mental illness or criminal records were considered “more likely” to engage in violent political extremism, while a positive correlation was also found between acts of that kind and being young and male.

The authors had hypothesized that individuals with current or past military experience would be less likely to turn to extremism – but the bivariate analysis didn’t bear this out.

The analysis actually found that those with military experience had a “significantly higher probability” of engaging in violent extremism.

Meanwhile, those who were in competition with rival ideological groups weren’t considered any more likely to engage in extremism than other people.

Second analysis

The multivariate analysis came up with different results in certain cases.

This analysis tested relationships to violent extremism using four different models.

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There remained a negative relationship between stable employment and a tendency to violence – this finding supported a “common criminological argument that stable employment is a positive social bonding mechanism that motivates individuals to abstain from violent crime rather than risk sacrificing social capital.”

“Our results show that there may well be a link between stable employment and the suppression of violence within the context of political extremism in the United States,” they wrote.

Findings were also consistent when it came to people who had radical peers – that was the strongest predictor of violence in the study.

But while marital status and education showed a strong relationship to propensity for political violence in the bivariate analysis, “they were not significant” in the second analysis.

Military experience also didn’t prove significant in the multivariate analysis.

Ultimately, the authors identified four characteristics that showed the most significant correlation to extremist behaviour in that analysis: employment, mental illness, criminal record and radical peers.

The chance of carrying out violent extremist behaviour only grew depending on how many characteristics an individual showed – though the authors stressed that the measures had “varying rates of missing data,” and that, “without imputation, no individuals in the sample have all four risk factors.”

Beyond that, “with or without imputation, our analysis finds that more than two fifths of the sample engaged in violent behaviour despite failing to show evidence of any of the four risk factors.

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“So although instructive, this set of risk factors should in no way be seen as a complete profile of violent political extremists,” the authors wrote.

However, these aren’t the only factors that can lead to extreme political violence as has recently been seen in the United States.

Political scientists and others have hypothesized that a hyper-partisan culture in the U.S. may be creating conditions that have allowed such attacks to take place.

They have questioned whether the relative frequency of such incidents could mean that people start to turn away from what’s seen as toxic rhetoric.

“That is the question of our time: Are we going to choose to continue the war, or are we going to choose peace?” asked Stanford University Prof. Robb Willer, who focuses on sociology.

“And we don’t know yet what the answer to that will be, because while a majority of Americans are fed up with the extremity of our political divisions, it does feel like we’re stuck here”

“It will get worse before it gets better.”

  • With files from The Associated Press

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