At its peak, how many people in America were members of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK)? Was it:
a) Less than 10,000
b) 10,000 – 50,000
c) 50,000 – 100,000
d) 100,000 – 1,000,000
e) more than 1,000,000
And the answer? E. The Klan claimed 4 – 5 million members in the mid-1920s (dropping down to 30,000 in 1930).
[For the history, check out a great Wikipedia entry on the KKK covering the waves, and how on earth they got this high].
If one looks at the various American initiatives against extremism, particularly against Muslim extremists in today’s age, we find that America itself is not immune to fits of extremism. And in all likelihood, this occasional swing to the extremes is probably in the genetic make-up of the country, and so we can expect similar moves in the future.
After all, there have been other periods of extreme behavior on the part of Americans and their leaders:
Racial Segregation – the ‘separate but equal’ laws, ended in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s (Wikipedia)
Prohibition – a ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of the vital social lubricant, alcohol, from 1920 – 1933 (Wikipedia)
McCarthyism – aggressive hunting of supposed Red terrorists and threats in the late 1940s and 1950s (Wikipedia)
I do find it interesting though that the democratic process in America has a natural release valve for extremist views and actions. There is a rhythm to the electoral cycle, and a pervasive confidence that the cycle will be honest and adhered to, that allows for ‘experiments’ to take place for a period of time, and then reverse again afterwards.
It is actually a great testament to the strength of the governance structures, the checks and balances, and the notion of democracy in its broad and its practical sense, that allows a country like America to continue to improve the quality of life for its citizens over time.
Extremism is a cyclical phenomenon, in my view. It represents the extreme swing of a cycle, from which point the swing will return back towards its more sane and stable midpoint. Perhaps it is a venting process, a release of the tension that builds up over time in a stable system. Perhaps it is the notion of deviance, that within any regular system there will be people or things that break the pattern. And sometimes these deviants attract enough followers to scale up actions.
Hopefully the extremist religious activities we are seeing now are the tail end of the cyclical swing. Reports abound of weakened terrorist capabilities – and you can imagine that the terrorists themselves are pretty fed up at not having achieved any of their goals, the path to heaven just as far away as when they started (and possibly a lot further, if they have blood on their hands).
Here’s hoping anyway.