RAND Gulf States Policy Institute Newsletter | Web version

Follow OCR on Twitter
June 2021

RAND Gulf States Policy Institute

From the Director

Hooded lone wolf man wearing black carrying bag in urban public setting, photo by Lorado/Getty Images

Lorado/Getty Images

Violent extremists: national and local news has been rife with stories of how men and women fueled by hate, fear, misinformation, and/or self-righteousness are threatening our democratic ideas as well as the lives and wellbeing of others.

Have you ever met and talked to anyone involved in a such a group or driven by related beliefs?

My featured RAND Corporation researcher guest this month has.

You may remember Rajeev Ramchand from his work on suicide in New Orleans in 2016. Dr. Ramchand had spoken directly with the families and friends of suicide victims to understand the reasons for the increased suicide rates in our city starting in 2013. This method of going into victims’ pasts—both as recent as days or hours before the suicide and as far back as childhood—is called psychological autopsy. In his most recent project, Dr. Ramchand adapts this method to speak to former white supremacists and Islamic extremists as well as their families and friends to understand more about why and how individuals joined extremist organizations, as well as how some of them exited these groups.

These answers can help communities build more responsive systems to prevent people from joining these groups or if they do, find the strength to leave. To learn more about this research, you can watch a recording of a recent RAND webinar on exiting extremism.

I often talk about community resilience in terms of weather emergencies and recovery. But living together peacefully, with tolerance, inclusion, and understanding, is critical to our ability to come together in a time of disaster.

As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions about what research will benefit our Gulf State communities the most.

Gary Cecchine

Researcher Spotlight

Q&A with Rajeev Ramchand

Rajeev Ramchand

This month, I am pleased to share my discussion with Rajeev Ramchand about his work on violent extremism in the United States. Along with his team’s findings, we also talk about what the study means to New Orleans—a region that we both know very well. Dr. Ramchand is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation.

You introduced us to the “psychological autopsy” approach in your study of suicide in New Orleans. Why did you choose to use this approach to understand violent extremism in the United States?

RAND is a great place for interdisciplinary research, and as a researcher at RAND, you are often exposed to new fields of research. My colleague, Todd Helmus, introduced me to the study of extremism and we noticed that there were similarities between studying suicide and extremism. I thought that the psychological autopsy approach could be useful for understanding why people joined extremist groups, just as we used it in New Orleans to understand why people chose to end their lives.

How did you find people to interview?

We established a really strong partnership with an organization called Parents for Peace, which helps family members of individuals who have joined extremist groups. They helped us recruit. We then decided to expand our sample to include people who had formerly been in extremist groups but had left these groups, called ‘formers.’ My colleague Ryan Brown developed a relationship with another organization, Beyond Barriers, that works to deradicalize individuals, and they helped us recruit many of the formers we interviewed.

What were some of your most surprising findings?

Two things really surprised me. First, I was surprised to hear that some individuals felt marginalized—disenfranchised with respect to job prospects, for example—and that they joined extremist groups because they believed the group would look out for their interests. I was also surprised to learn how members developed such strong bonds within the group. Being in the group provides social support for some members that they otherwise didn’t have. So, leaving the group, even if they became disenchanted with the ideology, was difficult for many people because they were abandoning people that they considered family.

Knowing the New Orleans area as you do, is there anything that our region can do to help stop the spread of homegrown extremists?

One quote from our interviews strikes me: a former extremist told us, “If I had a best friend who was black, there was no way I was—I can’t say I was a neo-Nazi. That just doesn’t work.” In our report, we discuss the importance of opportunities for expanding diversity exposure. New Orleans is a diverse city, but one that is racially segregated. Thoughtful and planned opportunities for diverse exposures could be instrumental in preventing the development of extremist ideology within the city and beyond.

The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute provides objective analysis to federal, state, and local leaders in support of evidence-based policymaking and the well-being of individuals throughout the U.S. Gulf States region. We invite your suggestions for researchers, projects, centers, and funding or collaboration opportunities to highlight in future issues. Write to director Gary Cecchine at Gary_Cecchine@rand.org.

Follow RAND

Privacy statement

RAND Corporation

RAND Corporation. 1776 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401-3208.
RAND® is a registered trademark.