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Medical Student Examines Pathways to Radicalization in the U.S.

Medical Student Examines Pathways to Radicalization in the U.S.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Michael DeLuca, Intern, Understanding Domestic Radicalization 

“So, what is a medical student doing studying radicalization at START?” I have answered this question many times in conversations with my colleagues at START and throughout my medical studies at hospitals. But there is no simple answer; the path I took to get here was unlikely.

In my third year of medical school at Georgetown University, I decided to enroll in a Master of Science program studying Biohazardous Threat Agents to pursue my interest in the intersections between health and security. As I learned more about weapons of mass destruction, the sociological theories of terrorism and national security policy, my curiosity for these topics only grew.

My introduction to START occurred during a class on bioterrorism at Georgetown. My professor used data from the Global Terrorism Database to demonstrate the prevalence of terrorism in the world today. After further independent research, I discovered that START would provide me with the opportunity I had been searching for all along.

START is a unique research center that truly values interdisciplinary learning and adherence to the rigorous research standards upon which the medical and scientific communities place great importance. As someone deeply interested in the world of health security, I viewed developing a more nuanced interpretation of radicalization and terrorism at START as an essential component of my education and training. How can one develop policies to protect against the misuse of biological weapons without understanding what motivates a person to become an extremist and what drives that person to express his or her extremism through violence with a firearm versus a letter filled with anthrax?  

At START I am working on the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) project. PIRUS attempts to fill the wide gaps in our understanding of the trajectories in both beliefs and behaviors of far right, far left, Islamist and single-issue radicals in the U.S. The project generates quantitative and qualitative data to help policymakers and academics better understand the complex pathways toward radicalization and the key differences between those who engage in violent and non-violent extremism. The PIRUS dataset contains information on more than 1,500 individuals radicalized in the U.S., including demographics, socioeconomic status, group interaction and personal history.

With the support of my supervisors Patrick James and Herbert Tinsley, I focused my efforts specifically on the qualitative analysis of life-course case studies of radicalized individuals. Using current theories of radicalization, I examine and code social, economic, psychological and political factors that may pave the road to an individual’s radicalization or violent behavior. This work is inherently interdisciplinary and allows me to use my knowledge and experience from the worlds of medicine, security, finance and development to delve into the minds of those engaging in radical behavior.

So, to answer the earlier question: What is a medical student doing studying radicalization at START?

I am gaining a better understanding of one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, violent extremism.

Appreciating the subtle, disparate factors that influence behavioral and belief trajectories will help me in any of the future roles I may play, whether that is trying to assist a diabetic patient to better control his blood sugar or developing programs to ensure that scientists in regions prone to violent extremism are able to engage in productive research. Above all else, what I value most about START is the commitment of its staff and interns to constant scientific inquiry. It is rare to work in an environment where I can walk down the hall and hear college students and Ph.D.s, political scientists and biologists, Americans and expatriates, questioning assumptions and critiquing widely-held beliefs about terrorism and radicalization. I have found such an environment at START.