Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bad Op-Ed, Good Social Science?

There was a piece in today's NYT that attracted the ire of my twitter friends who are veterans/care about veterans: it associated white supremacists with the US military.  Ouch.  The piece itself presented some broad generalizations that are pretty problematic  (as explained well here), but it raised a question that I do think is worth thinking about: what role does the US military play in the development of white supremacist movements in the US?

I am not saying all vets or most vets or even some vets are radicalized by war and become crazy, racist criminals/terrorists.  What I am curious about is:
  • whether military experience is over-represented in the white supremacist movement(s), 
  • whether future supremacists join the military to gain skills that they intend to deploy as part of the movement, 
  • whether young white folks who have no experience of "others" become more radicalized once they interact with perhaps the most integrated workforce in the U.S.--the US armed forces,
  • whether the military serves as a networking experience.
Lots of ink has been spilled over the various webs that connect Islamist extremists, but much less attention has been directed to white supremacists who have killed many, many Americans (some say the KKK has killed more Americans than Al Qaeda has).  

To be clear, in my one year at the Pentagon, I was amazed at how diverse the workforce there was, and it remains the most integrated of any workplace I have ever experienced.  I do not think that the military or war causes many people to become white supremacists, but we do have examples of former military folks becoming terrorists--Timothy McVeigh comes to mind.

I am not a military sociologist so I do not know what has been done in this area, but I would imagine that some folks react to the military experience in ways that are not so positive.  It may or may not have anything to do with combat.  The twitter discussion today produced several testable hypotheses--can we assess whether white supremacists are more or less likely than the average American of the same race/class/background to have military experience?  To have combat experience?  I have no idea, but it is something that we should consider even as we ought not generalize and consider all veterans to be potential extremists.

1 comment:

Vladimir said...

I tend to think one should first try to test a general hypothesis and then narrow it down. For example: Are individuals who have joined militant organisations as likely to be veterans as in the general population? (With all the appropriate definition of terms) Patriotism is clearly part of the ideology of some of the white supremacist organisations. The questions you're interested in seems to lead toward examining that connection. However there may be an explanation that takes priority - something more general that could apply to other ideological groups.