What Tea Party Legislators Can Learn From Former Radical Extremists

Members of Congress could lean a lot about the problem with rigid thinking, as outlined by former jihadists at a London conference

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At the end of June, Google Ideas (a new "think/do" tank funded by Google), the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival sponsored a summit in Dublin, Ireland, that brought together more than 50 former violent extremists to brainstorm ways to combat violent extremism in the world. The participants ranged from former Neo-Nazi skinheads and former Northern Ireland IRA and UDA fighters to former Colombian rebels and former Islamist jihadists. Their politics, in other words, pretty much spanned the spectrum from left to right and represented political, religious, nationalist, and racist movements.

Given the broad range of causes and motivations represented by the participants, I asked Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas and the primary organizer of the summit, if there were any common threads or traits he'd observed in all the former extremists he had worked with to make the summit happen. He thought a long moment before answering. The "formers," he said, had vastly different ideologies, different stories and paths, and a wide range of personalities. Was there something they all had in common?

"They're all extremely fixed in their thinking," he finally said. "Or, at least they were when they were active participants in extremist groups."

It is, perhaps, not a good thing that my conversation with Cohen, and some of my conversations with the former extremists at that summit, have come to mind again over the past two weeks as I've watched the double-debacle of the national debt limit and FAA funding fights play out in Congress -- a "debacle" so egregious that it prompted Standard and Poor's to strip the U.S. of its top credit rating over the weekend. But the parallels are also warning signs worth pondering, as we consider where we want our legislators to go from here.

The former extremists at the Google summit had all walked some very difficult roads of hope, anger, naivete, disillusionment, regret, learning, and growth to get where they are today. But many of them spoke of initially being attracted to an ideology that seemed both simple and clear, and which seemed to provide answers to not only how the world was, but also how to fix it. They were young and idealistic. And there is, they acknowledged, a great appeal to simple, black-and-white approaches that reduce messy complexity to something more manageable, with a clear and "simple" fix.

Both the Colombian rebels and the Islamist jihadists had seen real problems and injustices around them and had initially joined activist or resistance groups in the hopes of creating a more fair and better society. That those ideologies were over-simplistic and naive was a problem, of course.

"We had a very sketchy idea about what this grand Islamic state was going to be," admits Noman Benotman, a former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). "Everybody said, 'Yeah! An Islamic State!' But what's the meaning of an Islamic state? That means, for us, that it will bring justice. It will bring everything. Everything will be nice. Everything will be fixed. Everything will be perfect. But if you ask most of the jihadists, give me a 15-minute lecture about the Islamic state you are going to establish, they will fail. They will talk for maybe two minutes, and you'll wait the other 13."

But the real problem, many of them now say, was not the ideologies themselves, but when those ideologies became both rigid and sacred. Or, as Benotman said, when the ideology became not a means to an end, but an end in of itself; a sacred idol that had to be preserved, intact and uncompromising, at all costs.

"Ideology is a set of concepts and ideas," Benotman explained. "And it's created because it helps any group achieve their goals. Because you need a framework. Liberalism itself is an ideology. And it's extremely useful as a tool, or means. The problem is when [the ideology] becomes not a tool, but the end itself. That means the group starts to act to serve the ideology. To keep it. To protect it. That's the explanation for people who have no tolerance when you're disagreeing with them. Because it's not a difference of tools and means.You're talking about the end, itself. So it's impossible to have a discussion. If you disagree, you are not me. You are the other. You are the enemy."

Granted, there's a long distance between extremist groups willing to employ violence and sacrifice lives as a means of protecting their ideology, shunning any compromise or dissent, and legislators willing to sacrifice the credit rating and potential economic stability of a country, or the paychecks of 74,000 contractors and FAA employees, in order to protect the integrity of their ideology, shunning any compromise or dissent. But the ideological rigidity and unwillingness to compromise, no matter how reckless the consequences, echo similarly enough that we should all be a bit alarmed.

As Benotman said, ideology can be a very helpful in organizing people around a shared set of values or beliefs. And as a starting point, it can be very positive tool. But when any group, whether it's a righteous freshman class of Tea Party diehards or any other offspring of a political or social movement, become not only rigid in their thinking, but also willing to risk recklessly for the sake of keeping their ideological underpinnings intact, we should worry. Because ideology, especially in a democracy made up of differing constituencies and viewpoints, should only be a starting point. When it becomes something more rigid than that, it starts to become dangerous.

Abu Muntasir, a soft-spoken London Imam who once served as a major conduit for young Muslims in England wanting to get to the jihad training camps of Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me that when we become righteous in our beliefs, "we are falling short ... before God."

Muntasir, like all the other former extremists at the Google summit, had learned the hard way where ideology can lead if it becomes too rigid, uncompromising, or a sacred end in and of itself. And all of them have walked very painful paths back from those places to give the rest of us a warning, like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Future, about where our own folly, hubris, and righteousness could lead. We, and all the legislators who represent us, would do well to listen.