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The Perils of Extremism

BYUH Convocation 2017

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. Just over two weeks ago we remembered the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks—the largest terrorist attack in modern history. This horrific incident of violent extremism changed the way we see the world, and influenced many to start to think of how we might counter the threat of terrorism. For me, however, the incident that led me down the path of analyzing terrorism and violent extremism began over thirty years ago in Germany.

I grew up as a “military brat” (meaning my father was a member of the US military), and spent my entire high school years living in a small German village to the East of Frankfurt. I loved my days in Germany, but what gripped me as a teen, was the attacks of the terrorist group the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang). On an August night in 1985 a young American soldier visited a nightclub in Wiesbaden, met a cute German girl, and walked her home later that night. What the young soldier didn’t realize was that she was a terrorist. He was shot in the head, and his body dumped in the woods, just so the Red Army Faction could gain access to his military ID card. With that card, another terrorist entered Rhein Main Air Force Base the next day in a stolen US vehicle that was laden with 500 pounds of explosives. When the car detonated two individuals were killed, 11 wounded, and dozens of vehicles, along with buildings were damaged. This was a very memorable attack for me, but definitely not the only one to have struck close to home. In fact, during my high school years over 24 terrorist attacks took place by this group there in Germany, including our airport, military shopping area, and officers’ quarters at our local Kaserne. I remember back then wondering, “What drives these people to such extremes that they would be willing to try and to kill innocent people?” That question and thoughts on how I might try to reduce the threat of violent extremism has led me on a life-long journey to counter terrorism.

Terrorism is a phenomenon that continues to grip our world, and seems to be ever increasing. My birth in 1968 happens to coincide with the beginning of the modern era of terrorism. Back in 1968 the world saw 98 terrorist attacks with 197 casualties. The year 1992 was the first high point in the modern era of terrorism with over 4,000 attacks, and almost 20,000 casualties. This is also the first year of marriage for my wife and me. She was trying to encourage me to consider being a pharmacist like her father, since she just didn’t see a future in terrorism. She was right in part, since there was a decline in terrorism for a while, but then in our new millennium, terrorism started to explode again. The biggest year was 2014 with almost 14,000 terrorist attacks, and close to 85,000 casualties. While we have seen a slight decline in the past two years, terrorism is certainly not fading away.

Terrorism, while perhaps the most mentioned manifestation of violent extremism, is not the sole appearance we see today. Expressions of violent extremism can be seen in the desecration of what many might view as holy, such as Jewish cemeteries and statues of Buddha, all the way to genocide of a people such as in Rwanda. Just this last month, we witnessed extremism as white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, and neo-Nazis came to rally in Charlottesville to attempt to preserve Confederate monuments. One on their side took yet a further extreme action in driving through the crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring others.

Violence is, however, just one manifestation and peril of extremism, but surely not the only one. But before I discuss more of the perils of extremism, it would be good to talk about what extremism actually is and how one becomes an extremist.


Extremism is to go far away from mainstream thoughts, beliefs, or actions. It is to take a position or a belief to such an extreme as to ignore the consequences of such a viewpoint, and to view others with contrary positions and beliefs with intolerance.  We can see examples of extremist beliefs obviously in politics, but also in religion, sports, science, medicine, and virtually all aspects of life.

In statistics, we often look to the normal curve to show a population’s position from the mean. The standard deviation is used to measure the spread from the mean, and we know that 95% of the population will be within two standard deviations from the mean. In terms of extremism, those I am most concerned about are those who find themselves two or more standard deviations from the mean. Of course, the further one gets from the mean, the more extreme that individual is.

Becoming Extreme

What leads someone to become an extremist? I don’t think anyone wakes up one day and says, “I think I’ll be an extremist!” Instead the journey to the extreme is a gradual, step by step process towards the fringe. First the individual becomes interested in a topic, his mind is intrigued by something of perceived value. This might be someone new to a religion or energized of a political cause. In this first step, there is absolutely nothing wrong, since engagement is something that we, as educators and students, hope for in our classrooms. Yet the individual in a continuing thirst for knowledge joins others with similar interests, and the discussions, instead of looking at all sides of the topic, focus on just one side of the issue. This single-sided discussion works to reinforce existing views and lead them ever steadily towards the extreme. The group isolates itself from others (intellectually, if not physically) and continues step-by-step to take each other away from mainstream views. As counter-terrorist Marc Sageman describes this process for young radicals, “the interactivity among ‘a bunch of guys’ acts as an echo chamber, which progressively radicalizes them collectively to the point where they were ready to join a terrorist organization” (2008). I like Sageman’s concept of the echo chamber, since this is what terrorists and extremists do—isolate themselves so that they can only hear their own voices, which only further strengthens and exacerbates their views.

This process of becoming an extremist works the same for terrorists, as it does for other “flavors” of extremism, with the exception that the others tend not to lead towards violence. I would like to share an example with you, which I hope will not offend anyone. A young mother might be worried about the decision whether or not to vaccinate her child. She has heard both sides of the story on social media—vaccines can save lives, but also that vaccines are often held responsible by some for physical and mental changes in children. With her interest high in the topic she presses forward looking at the evidence. However, she does not give both sides equal attention, but instead looks solely at all the negative stories on the internet. She follows those on social media who are outspoken against vaccinations, and joins the anti-vaccinators “echo chamber”, which carries her further away from commonsense beliefs. She falls into the psychological trap of cognitive consistency, of downplaying scientific evidence that discounts her held beliefs, and amplifying information that would support it. She then starts to vocalize her contempt for those mothers who would, in her mind, cruelly subject their children to the risk from vaccinations, and treats those mothers with intolerance, since they are, after all heartless mothers. She has gone from being a mother with a genuine concern for her own precious child, to someone on the extreme, who criticizes known science, and subjects her own children (and the children around them) to disease. She is obviously not a terrorist, but she is an extremist.

As I have just shown, extremists are not all violent, nor are they all political in nature. We all have the capacity, if we allow it, to slowly slide into extremism. Even in our Church we can become extreme in nature if we focus on one aspect at the expense of others. There is nothing wrong with family history, but if that becomes one’s only thought and passion, it can eventually lead an individual in an extreme path. I like President Boyd K. Packer’s analogy of the piano to make this point. He said, “How shortsighted it is, then, to choose a single key and endlessly tap out the monotony of a single note, or even two or three notes, when the full keyboard of limitless harmony can be played” (Packer 1971). I think we all know someone who is attempting to play their personal symphony with just one key.

The Perils of Extremism

So now that I’ve covered how someone may slowly enter the ranks of extremists, what are the perils of extremism? Let me say that I will not discuss all the potential dangers of extremism, but will share with you those that are a concern to me. While each flavor of extremism might hold unique perils, I want to focus on those dangers that hold across the spectrum of extreme viewpoints. We know that extremism can, but does not always lead to violence. Violence, however, is the peril of extremism that led me into my professional pursuit on how to counter terrorism. Yet, I will not discuss violence as the only peril of extremism, since I believe other dangers of extremism are also harmful to individuals and societies.


Firstly, I think one of the perils of extremism is isolation. Those that move towards the fringe become isolated from society, isolated from friends and families, and potentially isolate themselves from God. This isolation hurts both directions. Extremists lose contact with those who love them, and find acceptance among new friends who share their views. They lose the desire to connect with the outside world, since the outside does not believe as they do.  Similarly, the outside starts to lose the desire to connect with them, since the extremists are fixated only on their fringe topic. Sadly, I’ve unfriended individuals on Facebook who I feel are extremists. To clarify, these are not those that have contrary opinions from me—I welcome those. Rather I have “unfriended” those that are so far removed from the mainstream that they no longer recognize their own intolerance.  This isolation is indeed a peril for friendships, for families, and for societies. We are always stronger when we are together, especially with all of our diversity. And I worry most about individuals whose decisions to focus solely on extreme views (including doctrine), walk away from God, feeling their views are more important than His views, or their cherished single doctrine is more important that the simplicity and beauty of the entire gospel. 

Ends Constructive Conversation

Second, I am concerned about the peril that extremism has in ending constructive conversation (Gutman 2007). Even if we are not extremists, but are simply moving further away from each other, we may lose the ability to talk rationally with those on the other side.  As a political scientist, this concerns me greatly. The great strength of a democracy is our ability to engage in civil discourse with one another. Yet, when we start to demonize the other side, we no longer have the desire to spend time one with another. Here in the United States we have created a divide between Democrats and Republicans, not necessarily between the policies of the two sides, but often between who we perceive see each to be.

One of my favorite types of humorist political videos is when a “reporter” interviews a political party member (either side, it doesn't matter which) and asks for an opinion of a purported policy supported by their party’s leader. Only the policy that is suggested is actually the policy from the opposing political side. The interviewed individual will quickly praise the policy, or deride it if it was suggested it came from the other side. This falls under the logical fallacy of guilt by association. We quickly demonize the policies originating from our political opponents, without judging the merit of the policy itself. How can we have meaningful political conversation when we instantly demonize our opponents? Are the leaders on “our” side of the political spectrum really saints, while the others are the spawn of Satan? No, they are not. The strength of democracies is in their ability to foster political debate. Not debate in the negative sense of shouting at one another, but in the chance to put forward various views and seek through rational discourse to find the best way forward. When we lose the ability to talk with one another in a rational and civil manner, we start to lose civilization itself.


Another peril of extremism as groups polarize is the phenomenon of groupthink. This is a concept put forward by the psychologist Irving Janis. As explained by Cass Sunstein, “Janis’s suggestion was that certain groups stifle dissent, value consensus over correctness, fail to examine alternatives and consequences, and as a result, end up producing fiascoes” (Sunstein 2009). Now when Janis spoke of “fiascoes,” he meant taking greater risks, which politically has led to some really bad decisions (consider the Bay of Pigs during the Kennedy administration as an oft used example). However, taking greater risks can also lead to deadly consequences as well. Now, groupthink is not something completely foreign to many of us. ALL of our mothers have warned us as teens “would you jump of a cliff if all of your other friends were doing it?” The simple and correct answer to this is unfortunately many of us would do it. This is easily seen in terrorist groups. As the group isolates themselves, they only hear opinions from each other. They also have the desire to agree with each other, since they do not want to be seen as the weak link of the group—or they might have fear of their own terrorist leader. Their extremist views, mixed with peer pressure leads them to take risks. It IS risky to make a bomb, to engage in a shootout with police, or hijack planes and crash them into buildings. Thus extremism, mixed with the desire to conform in a group, leads to riskier behavior that we would see by a single individual.


Extremists see the world in black and white, wrong and right. They, of course, are right, which then makes the rest of the world wrong. This, in itself is a peril, but it can also lead to a dehumanizing process, whereby those that are wrong are seen as less than human. If they are indeed wrong, then they cannot be as intelligent or civilized as we are. If religion is part of the extremism, then God favors us, and cannot tolerate them. This leads to demonizing the enemy, and justifying whatever actions are necessary to deal with the “other”. Dehumanization has been the process for millennia to make it easier to commit acts of violence against one’s opponents, since they really are not fully human. While we in this room might not feel that we fall in this trap, let me risk offending some more of you right now. There are those here, and throughout the Wasatch Front that are fans of the University of Utah, and those that are fans of BYU in Provo. Sporting can bring out healthy competition, but it can also bring extremism too. We have all heard many jokes about each side in this rivalry, but I am sure that many of us have also heard both sides demonize the fan base of both teams. This process of dehumanizing our rivals makes it difficult to deal with each other in a day-to-day basis, to take one another serious in work and social settings, and can lead to ostracizing whole groups of people just on the basis of college selection. One group is not Devil worshippers, and the other is not religious zealots. However, both sides contain some extremists.

Extremism becomes Mainstream

This is just a harmless example, but what happens when extremist views become popular opinion? One of the greatest perils is when extremism becomes mainstream. When a society moves to the extreme, there is a much greater chance for violence or strife amongst its people. It can be hard to image how the mainstream might even contemplate moving to the extreme, in fact most members of society if asked, would ridicule the idea that they would someday willingly espouse radical or extreme views. I think Alexander Pope’s simple poem best describes the movement of an individual or a society to the extreme.

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien

As to be hated needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

Exposure to extreme beliefs without check can gradually move us, ever so slowly, in an extreme direction. I think this can best be seen in the example of post-World War I Germany. Germany was frustrated after the end of the Great War. The German citizens had no idea that their country was even losing the war, so when the end came abruptly, they were confused and indeed humiliated. To make matters worse, the Treaty of Versailles required reparations from the defeated Germans, which created a massive economic hardship. Soon the German economy suffered from hyperinflation which impoverished the middle class. Just as things started to improve, the German economy was caught up in the international ripples of America’s Great Depression. The German people felt lost, and desperately sought for answers to their political and economic conditions. Some Germans turned to the radical left for answers, embracing communism, while others turned to the extreme right, clinging to the Nazi Party. The majority, however, remained at first in between these two extreme movements. Yet how did so many people start to turn to Nazi beliefs—simple, they started to listen to lies propagated by the Nazis without dismissing them for the utter fabrications they were. In a time of uncertainty, it is nice to find someone to blame for our misfortunes. The Nazis used the Jews as their country’s scapegoat. Here we see examples of Nazi propaganda, stories used to create distrust and hatred of Jews. The first shows a Jewish stock market trader sitting on a giant bag of money. The caption beneath states that money is the true Jewish god. In a time of economic hardship, the belief that Jews were benefiting economically while the rest of the population barely eked out a living bred contempt. The second shows a Jew using candy to lure innocent German children into his home to indulge in his evil designs. Fortunately for sweet little Else, her brother Hans recognizes the man as a Jew, stops her from taking his candy, and calls a nearby policeman, who takes the Jew into custody. The children’s mother in this propaganda story later warns,

"A devil goes through the land,

The Jew he is, known to us all

As murderer of the peoples and polluter of the races,

The terror of children in every country!

"He wants to ruin the youth.

He wants all peoples to die.

Have nothing to do with a Jew

Then you'll be happy and gay!"

(Holocaust Historiography Project)

Little by little, these lies were accepted by the people. What was once seen as abominable, became commonplace. In time, millions came to espouse Nazi beliefs, and create a cult of worship to Hitler. We now look at history and view the disturbing reality of the Holocaust, and question how could so many people become so extreme. Hannah Arendt’s title of her book, Banality of Evil, sums up the answer for Aldof Eichman, a Nazi leader, as well as millions of German people, that extremist actions just became normal. And once extremism becomes normal, extensive violence is just a step away.

Avoiding Extremism

So, some of the potential perils of extremism I’ve discussed are isolation, the end of constructive conversation, risky behavior brought about by groupthink, the dehumanization of the other side, and increased violence when extremism becomes mainstream. If these are the perils we would encounter because of extremism, then what can we do to avoid allowing ourselves or our communities from becoming extreme?

Moderation not the answer

While it may seem logical that moderation is the answer to extremism, it is not. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with taking moderate stands in life, but there is also nothing wrong with having divergent views either. If we look back at the normal curve, we can see that the majority are in the middle, but that doesn’t mean that they are all of one opinion. While vanilla might be the most accepted flavor of ice cream, it is not my favorite. I would hate to live in a world of no option but vanilla ice cream for dessert. Being moderate in all things also can lead, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks points out, to “justify[ing] moderation in commitment” (Oaks 1994). Moderation can lead to being lukewarm or passive. Instead of being moderate, or encouraging everyone to be “middle of the road,” we need instead to be humble. We need to look inward and try to recognize if we are heading down the path of extremism. As Socrates reminds us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Are we focusing on just one facet of our life, our discipline, or beliefs, without seeing the bigger picture, or hearing alternate perspectives than just our own?

Get out of the Echo Chamber

I think the first and foremost thing we can do is to step out of the echo chamber. When we only indulge our minds in information that already confirms our own view points, we continue to become more and more entrenched in our views, and risk the slide further into the extreme. Unfortunately for American politics, too many of our citizens fall into this trap. In decades past, when viewers wished to become informed, they turned on network television with rather neutral news broadcasters. However, with the creation of cable, the 24/7 news channels entered the scene, and offered an endless stream of news in the political flavor of choice. Political conservatives sup from conservative commentators, while political liberals feed from liberal commentators, which further reconfirm their political views. Social media and the internet have only exacerbated the issue. Too many people spend their time basking in their echo chamber of choice, hearing the things they already believe, and discounting (or not even hearing) those things that might challenge their viewpoints. If we wish to avoid the peril of extremism, we need to end this echo chamber practice. We need to choose to listen to multiple perspectives, and use our own minds to make our own decisions. President George Washington is a good example of striving to avoid the echo chamber trap. He brought diverging opinions into his cabinet—Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury. These two members of President Washington’s inner circle gave vastly different views of the direction the new country should take. The role of advisors, counselors, or board members is not to rubberstamp a leader’s decisions or views, but rather to give honest counsel so that the decision at the end is based on sound judgment. This is virtually impossible inside an echo chamber. So, get out! Talk with individuals with differing views and ideas. Listen or read a variety of credible sources of information with varying opinions on the topics you study, so that you can make better decisions for yourself, rather than just being led down a path by fellow believers, slipping further along towards extremism.

Speak up

After we have decided to think for ourselves and leave the echo chamber behind, we need to have the courage to speak up. I think one of the greatest quotes on this topic also comes out of the context of the rise of Nazi Germany. Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor who spent almost seven years in a Nazi concentration camp for speaking out against Hitler. After his release, Neimöller felt he could have done so much more for the plight of the Jews. He said,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me (Niemöller).

When no one is willing to speak out against extremist views, we give power and acceptance to those fringe or intolerant beliefs. Speaking up can be difficult, but it is the right thing to do. I remember a simple experience I had a dozen years ago on a flight from Washington DC to Dallas. A young mother sitting two rows behind me had a baby who was probably congested, since as soon as the plane started to climb the baby began to cry in pain. The baby’s crying continued throughout the flight—the WHOLE flight. Just as the baby started to settle down, the plane began its descent and the crying began in earnest once again. By the time we were on the ground, everyone was ready to get off of the plane. However, as we stood up, waiting for the door to open and disembark, an older man (I was going to call him a gentleman, but he wasn’t) started an intolerant diatribe at the young mother. I will spare the audience some of his colorful language, but he basically said, “Lady, get that baby to stop its crying. We are all sick and tired of your inability to mother your child.” I was shocked that someone would say something like this to a young mother. What shocked me more was the silence (other than the crying baby) in the plane as nobody said a word. I am sure many were shocked by his rude words, and others were just emotionally tired from hours of non-stop wailing. I took a breath and calmly said, “I’m sorry, but that was an extremely rude comment. We do not all feel that way.” Then, with the silence broken, others said, “Leave her alone” and “What’s your problem, man?” and some people turned to help the young mother gather her things. The older man continued to offer his rude insights on her lack of mothering skills, but the mood on the plane changed. Many of us stopped listening to him, and turned our focus on her. While this might not be a political example of countering extremism, I feel it shows the need to stand up at all times and all places to protect the innocent, or to ensure, as a friend of mine once said, that the truth does not suffer.


If we have the courage to speak up, we also need to have the courage to act. Now I’m not advocating that we all need to pick up signs and become protesters, although some of us may indeed choose to take that step. Rather, I am suggesting that we take an active step in the direction away from extremism. Speaking up, may at times be the only action we need or are capable of taking, but there are times when we need to become engaged in a good cause. In the face of intolerance towards refugees around the world, I am so grateful that our Church has created the “I Was a Stranger” campaign. What does it suggest for members to do to act against hatred? Make a new friend, become informed of needs in your community, or volunteer at a low-income clinic or non-profit organization. A family friend in Germany is acting by helping to teach German to newly arrived refugees in that country. While we may not have refugees in our community, we can help those less fortunate in a similar fashion.


Speaking up and acting are vital, but we also need to learn humility and tolerance. Humility in realizing that we might not always be right, or that our views are not in fact the “one and only way forward.” Tolerance and respect of other people and opinions is essential as well. President Gordon B. Hinckley has said,

“I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry” (Hinckley 1995).

Tolerance is essential in the fight against extremism; however, the pendulum can swing the opposite direction as well. An extreme level of tolerance can also lead us to moral relativism—believing that all paths are true and that we should respect everything. This is a peril in its own self. Unlimited tolerance can also lead to what the philosopher Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance:

He said, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. . . . We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant” (Popper 1945).

President Hinckley’s words echo Popper’s:

“May the Lord bless us to work unitedly to remove from our hearts and drive from our society all elements of hatred, bigotry, racism, and other divisive words and actions. The snide remark, the racial slur, hateful epithets, malicious gossip, and mean and vicious rumor-mongering should have no place among us” (Hinckley 1997).

We need to ensure we are kind and tolerant of all people, but we need to also let the intolerant know that we will not tolerate their behavior. This does not mean we must protest, but it does mean that we need to not let intolerance breed within our lives, homes, or societies unchecked. This is a grassroots effort, and not something that will be solved at the top. I am grateful that students and faculty from BYU-Hawaii helped to counter extremism by working with the organization, Peace Players International, which brings Palestinian and Israeli youth together to play basketball—not as two separate opposing teams, but integrated teammates. This is a fantastic example of what is needed, but we need more. Each of us needs to first look inside ourselves and honestly and humbly recognize those tendencies that might take us to the fringe. Then we need to reach out to those victims of extremism, speak out when necessary, and act in tolerance and love to all those around us. The perils of extremism are something that will be with us for a long, long time, but we need to not condone nor ignore them, but rather actively strive to stand up against them.

As we prepare to send students from BYU-Hawaii with their training in the arts, science, social science, business, or other fields we need to help prepare them to avoid the perils of extremism in their own lives. We also need to teach them to get out of the echo chamber, to speak up, act, and live with humility and tolerance. Then they will be genuine gold and work towards the establishment of peace internationally.

Thank you.


Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley. 1997.

Gutmann, Amy. The Lure & Danger of Extremist Rhetoric. Daedalus: The Journal of American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2007

Hinckley, Gordon B. “This is the Work of the Master.” Ensign, April 1995.

Holocaust Historiography Project.

Niemöller, Martin. “First They Came.” Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

Oaks, Dallin H. “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall.” Ensign, October 1994.

Paker, Boyd K. “The Only True and Living Church.” Ensign, December 1971.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and its Enemies. Routledge. 2012.

Sageman, Marc. 2008. Leaderless Jihad (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Sunstein, Cass R. 2009. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford University Press).