"Its Islam over everything."
So read the Twitter bio of Douglas McAuthur McCain—or, as he reportedly called himself, "Duale Khalid"—the San Diego man who is apparently the first American to be killed while fighting for ISIS. According to NBC News, McCain grew up in Minnesota, was a basketball player, and wanted to be a rapper. Friends describe him as a high school "goofball" and "a really nice guy." So what could have made him want to join the ranks of other Americans drawn towards militant Islam like John Walker Lindh and Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn? And how can we explain the dozens of other Americans who have also gone off to fight as jihadists in Syria, for ISIS and other militant groups?
According to University of Maryland psychologist and terrorism expert Arie Kruglanski, who has studied scores of militant extremists, part of the clue may lie in that Twitter tagline of McCain's. Not just its content, but the mindset that it indicates—one that sees the world in sharp definition, no shades of gray. "These extreme ideologies have a twofold type of appeal," explains Kruglanski on this week’s episode. "First of all, they are very coherent, black and white, right or wrong. Secondly, they afford the possibility of becoming very unique, and part of a larger whole."
We talked to Kruglanski about what motivates people like McCain in the first place—and about the science of what makes a terrorist.
This episode also features a discussion of a new Pew report showing that social media may actually discourage the expression of some opinions (rather than enabling them), and of how neuroscientists and filmmakers are working together to understand how people's perceptions actually work in a movie theater.