How should we respond to the murder of Alan Henning at the hands of Isis?

If we look to ‘make sense’ of extremist violence, we are doomed to fail

Tom Gaisford
Tuesday 07 October 2014 10:08
An undated handout photo released by the Foreign Office with the permission of his family, showing Alan Henning at a refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border
An undated handout photo released by the Foreign Office with the permission of his family, showing Alan Henning at a refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border

Extremists operate in a vacuum, free from self-criticism. Proof of this is their self-portrayal as anything but: they see themselves as enlightened moderates, driven to violence by necessity – heroes, effectively. This, it would seems, is how they are able to justify their conduct to themselves (whatever it is and whomsoever it affects).

Circular nonsense, isn’t it? Ironically, however, the single most potent thing about extremism is the ease with which one can be drawn into its binary narrative of "us" and "them". Manifested in tauntingly ad hominem attacks of the type we’ve seen courtesy of "Jihadi John" (via his victims for extra effect), extremism is as provocative as it gets. Yet it is a mistake to succumb: whilst undoubtedly cathartic, biting back only lends legitimacy to the extremist narrative, thereby fueling and protracting the problem.

Few would wish to disagree with David Cameron’s description of Henning’s murderers as "monsters". Yet, the language of dehumanisation and destruction is alarmingly reminiscent of the very darkest chapters in our world history; to avoid the risk of replication, we must maintain the distinction between offender and offence — whatever the circumstances.

Contrary to what its exponents would have us believe, our enemy is not IS, nor its extremist counterparts in other states for that matter. It is extremism itself: entirely unconfined, it can be transmitted to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And, whatever the exigencies of the moment may require, we must acknowledge that no number of bombing missions, ground invasions or displays of public revulsion will eradicate it. That is because our enemy is intangible: it is, in essence, the absence of critical moderation.

The key to neutralising extremism is more likely to lie in harnessing and disseminating information about the how it takes hold in the first place. The process is known colloquially as "radicalisation" or "brainwashing" (depending on the context), though a more helpful term for it is "mind control". Essentially, it relies on our inherent tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our biases: its practitioners play to what we want to hear, to lead us unwittingly away from reality, simultaneously undermining the confidence and critical capacity we require to "return home". As the clinical psychiatrist Arthur Deikman put it: "wanting to believe is perhaps the most powerful dynamic initiating and sustaining cult-like behavior."

Our mistake, it seems, is to conflate extremists with those who manipulate them. Though potentially deluded themselves, the likelihood is that controllers deceive their controlees knowingly, for their own personal benefit. To that extent, they are not in fact extremists but deeply cynical, critically attuned egoists.

Extremists lack critical capacity: by definition, they are immoderate. And the unjustifiable murder of Alan Henning is testament to this. While monsters do not exist; cults do, regardless of how their disingenuous leaders choose to portray themselves.

More information on cults/mind control is available at

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