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The seductive horror of extremist violence Nobody would dare to confess to such feelings

Just look at it. (Dominique BERRETTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Just look at it. (Dominique BERRETTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


October 13, 2022   5 mins

There is something horribly seductive about the spectacle of extreme violence: it’s disgusting, gut-wrenching, appalling. It’s also impossibly compelling in its extremity and strangeness: just look at it.

Anyone who builds a career out of watching such material, whether it’s for the purposes of documenting it, reporting on it, or inquiring into its wider causes and meanings, ought to have some thoughts on the moral ambiguities intrinsic to it. In his memoir, Unreasonable Behaviour, first published in 1990, the British war photographer Don McCullin explains how he was drawn to war by a sense of adventure and the belief that by documenting its horrors he could stir the conscience of those who could put an end to them.

But he soon came to doubt that conviction and to question the true nature of his motives: “If war had become so hateful to me, why did I not keep away?” Reflecting on his long and celebrated career, he can’t repress the nagging suspicion that war photographers are nothing more than glorified profiteers, coldly trading on other people’s unspeakable suffering and grief. “Yet, I ask myself, what has all my looking and probing done for these people, or for anyone?… What have I done with my life?”

Reading Unreasonable Behaviour today is a jarring experience, not just because of its raw honesty, but also because of the contrast it invites between McCullin’s temperament and his peers who now cover war and conflict. McCullin is ambivalent, self-reproachful, measured and stoic, whereas his successors tend to be self-righteous, ideological and fragile. When McCullin was asked about Covid, at the height of the pandemic, the then-84-year old contemptuously snorted: “I couldn’t give a sod about it.”

There are certainly no Don McCullins in the extremism profession today, where stupefying levels of self-aggrandisement are matched only by a stupefying absence of any self-awareness. Consider Vidhya Ramalingam, founder and CEO of a counter-extremism company called Moonshot. Referring to the Eradicate Hate Global Summit held in Pittsburgh last month, Ramalingam insisted that its purpose was “to stop an epidemic of violence that has cost us so many lives
 We are the group that are going to stop this”.

The self-promotion and self-regard on display here is really quite breathtaking. So, too, is the sense of unreality. How, you might ask, does Team Ramalingam plan to go about the task of stopping America’s epidemic of violence? By speaking at plush conferences about “novel forms of safeguarding”? By supporting workshops on the intersection between gaming and extremism? By posting insufferably smug tweets about men “taking responsibility” for male-dominated power structures?

Of course, all of this raises a bigger question: what is the point of the extremism profession? Ramalingam would say its overriding purpose is to make the world a better place; that it’s only by properly understanding how extremism works that we can identify effective solutions for combating it. Yet if you take even a cursory glance at the extremism profession it becomes glaringly obvious that the driving imperative behind it is not to eradicate extremism, but to hunt down, if not outright invent, new forms of it in order to drum up business from all the internet-scraping, report-writing, and digital counter-messaging that the industry trades on.

This explains why so many industry-insiders have embraced the concepts of hate speech and the related notion of “online harms”, and it’s why some extremism experts have heartily endorsed the notion that violent extremism has become “mainstream” in American culture and society. They have done so not necessarily because they are committed to radical activism, although some certainly are, but because the alarmist, progressive vision of a society saturated in mutual hatred affords so many opportunities for the extremism profession to engorge itself on.

The result is a curious, if mutually beneficial and lucrative, alignment, where the concerns of Left-leaning activists are leveraged and repackaged for profit by hard-nosed extremism hucksters who are now suddenly awakened to the lethal menace of Tucker Carlson, Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate. At the same time, the radical activists have embraced the language of violent extremism — “mass radicalisation”, extremist “eco-systems”, dangerousness, vulnerability — to impugn their political enemies on the Right and to legitimise their social banishment through censorship.

Another curious aspect of this alignment is how readily so many extremism experts and scholars have embraced the infantilising trauma discourse of radical activists. This is a subject I address in my new book on the seductions and repulsions of violent online spectacles. If you spend all your time watching this stuff, out of choice, as many extremism experts do, you will inevitably run up against the suspicion that you might secretly enjoy it or have been irreparably desensitised by it.

Nobody in the extremism profession would ever dare confess to harbouring such feelings — and if they were to voice them they would be ostracised as a degenerate voyeur or sociopath. Instead, many claim to have been traumatised by what they have seen. And while I have no doubt that some have been psychologically or spiritually damaged by over-exposure, the invocation of trauma serves to deflect or neutralise any deeper inquiry into the murky business of tracking extremist material on the internet and the complex motives and emotions that it involves.

War, as many illustrious war correspondents have testified, can be a warping experience. In his memoir about covering the war in Bosnia in the early Nineties, Anthony Loyd remarked that although war didn’t fundamentally change his already black-pilled perspective on the world, it did serve to reinforce his “views about the pointlessness of existence, the basic brutality of human life and the godlessness of the universe”. For Christopher Hedges, the feeling was far more visceral and dramatic. Recalling a ruck he’d gotten into with an airline clerk on the way back from a particularly harrowing trip to El Salvador, where he’d been covering the war there between 1983 and 1988, he wrote: “Blood streamed down his face and mine. I refused to wipe the dried stains off my cheeks on the flight to Madrid, and I carry a scar on my face from where he thrust his pen into my cheek. War’s sickness had become mine.”

Similarly revealing is an anecdote told by Rukmini Callimachi, the New York Times journalist who made her name reporting on Isis, in which she describes hearing someone repeatedly banging on her apartment door late at night. She called the cops, fearing it might be an Isis operative paying her a menacing visit. (It was actually someone from the local water company.) Callimachi tells the story with humour, but the moral behind it is a serious one: to be exposed to carnage and chaos, all of the time and without let up, can seriously derange one’s perception, judgment and sense of proportion.

The best reporters are acutely aware of this danger and try, as best they can, to inoculate against it. Loyd, by his own admission, failed miserably on that front. Not only did the war in Bosnia wrench open the lid on the darker side of his mind; it also blew a gaping hole in his sense of professional detachment and made him contemptuous of the “complacency of Western societies”.

This hints at a greater paradox that extremism professionals would do well to consider: that through over-exposure to the very worst places of the internet, they succumb to the very radicalisation dynamics that they’re trying to expose and hinder. When mainstream journalists think that MAGA is an armed insurgency or declare that, as one headline put it in Foreign Policy, “White Supremacists Want a Dirty Bomb”, or believe that a red dress or “ok” sign is a fascist dog-whistle, it becomes impossible to deny that some kind of warping has occurred. By staring too intently into the twilight world of online megadeath, mayhem and tribal hatred, they inevitably project this gruesome and fringe demiworld onto the real world that the rest of us inhabit. As the terrorism scholar Peter Neumann has observed:

“If people end up spending too much of their time in virtual communities, the online forums come to function like one of Edwin Sutherland’s “criminogenic environments”, in which deviant and extreme behaviours are learned and absorbed and in which extreme ideas come to seem normal because of constant interaction with people who hold similar—and similarly extreme—views
 As a result, people acquire a skewed sense of reality
”

The irony, which seems lost on the extremism reporters and experts, is that this dynamic applies as much to them as to the extremists they spend all of their time “infiltrating”. Don McCullin knew all about the dangers of getting too close to his subject and, along with other like-minded war reporters, he has much to teach us about the ambiguities of their profession and their own conflicted relationship to it. The new generation of hate eradicators and extremism experts would no doubt benefit from reading them — although such are the exigencies of saving the world that they probably don’t have the time.


Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.


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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

Maybe dumbing down everything to fit under the banner of “extremism” has removed all nuance and intelligent discussion from a variety of topics?

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Taking Religion, and thus good and evil, out of the equation is the problem.

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
1 year ago

“If you gaze long enough into the abyss, it gazes back at you.” – Nietzsche

Last edited 1 year ago by Sam Wilson
Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Wilson

“And he who wrestles with monsters should see to it that he does not himself become a monster” (ibid. [“Beyond Good and Evil”])

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

And the extremism professionals, in their echo chambers reinforcing their distorted perceptions, results in a presidential candidate thinking that it is fine to refer to a third of the electorate as ‘deplorables’.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

But you should see the names those deplorables use for politicians. The hatred and contempt is mutual, so fair’s fair, surely

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Not really fair. A Presidential candidate has no reason for calling the people “deplorables”, if he/she plans to represent them. But the people have endless, legitimate reasons for calling politicians names.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Fair or no, it’s striking that in an election where the voters may be divided 45/45 with 10% in the balance, Clinton would talk about deplorables but Romney would call 47% “moochers.” Winning votes: is it part of the electoral process?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

It’s clear to most of us that the demand for Right Wing Extremism for experts to feed on exceeds the supply.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

excellent image – like crocodiles all lined up in the muddy river bottom waiting tor the wildebeest to try to wade across…..

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

It’s a world of commentary. Really, what’s the purpose of this article except to enter into the same space? What should we take from it that can help? Nothing, except for us to have something to add to our own commentary. All those comments on Putin and nuclear weapons, NATA and the USA. Maybe we should step back and take a deep breath. But if I don’t say that then I feel I’m just an insignificant stooge for greater power. What will my silence achieve? Nothing more than my comment. And I know my comment will slowly slip to the bottom, then be forgotten when a new story comes in.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Ah you win the nihilist prize today Brett!
(But you’ve failed, my comment is below yours!)

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

This seems like fun, so do you guys mind if i join you in a race to the bottom?
Except, there is no bottom…
Ain’t nihilism a wonderful thing? Nietzsche (quoted above) tried his best to enjoy it, and might’ve succeeded if he’d had the internet to make comments on.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Christo R
Christo R
1 year ago

There is something else related to this that I keep seeing that no one else seems to see even though it’s so obvious.
There is in essence no difference in the mentality of such “extremism professionals” and that of “discernment ministries”. They both see their chosen devil in every and anything whether it’s actually there to find or not.
It’s simply compulsive obsession after a while and all objectivity goes out some window or other and if you dare to disagree with them you are “of the devil” and you must also be fought. None of this is actually new, it’s just new that atheists do it in the west where before they only did it in the east…. perhaps because athiesm has effectively supplanted Christianity.

This is very much more a human than religious thing but it seems you need religion of some kind (any kind) for it to bloom.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Christo R

They both see their chosen devil in every and anything whether it’s actually there to find or not.

It’s a well-known phenomenon, as per the saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

I happen to be a carpenter – everything looks like either the saw or hammer is the answer. Of the two I like the hammer better…..

Fred Paul
Fred Paul
1 year ago

Half the time I tried to figure out what was the point being made. Just last week, I re-read CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Here is a read that can “hurt your head” with logic. But I knew exactly the point being made. In a nutshell, would you say that humanity has not kept up with the internet avalanche of information/data? You used to buy one magazine a week, a newspaper, and listen to one of possibly 15 news reporting services for the hour on the radio. What have we now? Not only are we overloaded with information, but we also have misinformation that used to be blocked by the established media gatekeepers.
I just read a mystery novel on a subject… now I have to decide whether it was mostly fiction based on a true story.
But this, I think, is the underlying message. Our society and government structure supporting a democratic task to share power with all are ill-equipped in the modern age of data that may construe information or misinformation based on your favourite flavour.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  Fred Paul

Our governments are the problem, and are the biggest part of the mis-information being broadcast. What they do not directly broadcast the Social Tech and MSM cartels who have captured government – do it for them.

Nick Rains
Nick Rains
1 year ago

”the lethal menace of Tucker CarlsonJordan Peterson and Andrew Tate.” What the
? Peterson has nothing in common with either of the others. Stopped reading at this point.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  Nick Rains

Ditto – another not-so-subtle hit and run from lumping all conservatives as fascist-adjacent. I have been a great fan of Tucker, but notice that lately (last year or so) he’s been willing to fall on his sword for more extreme positions (but then, he tells what sells, since his ratings don’t seem to suffer‍♂).

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago
Reply to  Nick Rains

No, the point being made is that in the eyes of the watchers these three men are equal right wing menaces, no matter that they differ among themselves.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
1 year ago

“Extremist violence”?
I suppose the establishment is based on “moderate violence”? I wonder if the author would psychoanalyse those attracted to moving to Israel, joining the British Army in Ireland from Cromwell up to the Good Friday Agreement, the Sri Lankan government, the American soldiers in… well, I’d be here all night.
But I’ve got more important things to do.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 year ago

It seems yet another scholarly niche has been created. I look forward to the degrees that will be forthcoming, with the endowed chairs in the fulllness of time.