There are two ways to account for extremism. There are narratives supplied by professionally trained outsiders, psychologists, and sociologists. Then there are stories provided by insurgents themselves, how they understand their involvement in the movement, the reasons they give. Each type of account makes some elements of the phenomenon visible while at the same time veiling others. (For an elucidating discussion of the merits of each approach, see Fay, 1996.)
It might be supposed that because they originate closer to the subjects, insider accounts are more accurate or valid than those issued from the outside, but this is not always true. Certainly, insiders are better positioned to reflect on their own mental states, but often they are in denial about them or they are ashamed to openly express them because they might be judged politically incorrect. Furthermore, even when they do attempt to be “honest”—as in, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I’m going to speak the truth”—insiders typically do so by echoing what are known as “vocabularies of motive” (Mills, 1940). These are readymade verbal scripts provided to them by the movement that disown, excuse, or justify what the public views as offensive. In their enumeration of the motives voiced by multiple-victim murderers to explain their behavior, James Fox and Jack Levin (2005: 19-25) cite thrill seeking, a craving for revenge, misguided loyalty, expediency, and ethical principle (i.e., mass killing undertaken to rid the world of a putative evil). What they fail to note is that such vocabularies often have little, if anything, to say about the actual causes of extreme violence. By this I mean the bio-psycho-social conditions prior to and independent of it and with which it is highly correlated, even when the effects of other possible causes are eliminated or, as it is said, “controlled” for.