Beware the word you've never heard before that you're suddenly hearing every day. It usually means that either a skilled propagandist is hard at work, or we're trying to paste over a stubborn reality with a shiny new label.
"Weapons of mass destruction." "Shock and awe." "Embeds." "Dead-enders." We'd not heard those terms much or at all before 2001, and they figured into the hard-selling that was necessary before and during a dubious invasion of Iraq. New words—like "the new economy," remember that?—lead us to buy untested ideas.
"Radicalized," is the latest term that we hear every three seconds, after thousands of years of hearing it rarely or never. "Radical" has been around a long time. So has "brainwashed," for that matter. "Radicalized" seems to mean something close to, "brainwashed into being a radical." But we never hear "brainwashed" anymore. We only hear "radicalized."
Of the San Bernadino shooters, the FBI assistant director said yesterday, "We believe that both subjects were radicalized and for quite some time." Well how long, exactly, were these two people "radicalized"? Can we trace it to a day? A morning? A moment!? Did she become radicalized one Wednesday while reading ISIS Illustrated over lunch, and then convince him by cocktail hour?
I realize these questions seem kind of dumb—and in the hindsight of a shooting like this, somewhat academic.
But I think using this term "radicalized" so exclusively and so suddenly also makes us dumb and puts us in a different kind of danger.
First of all, every serious adult has felt or become "radicalized" on one issue or another over a lifetime. I tried to save a condemned house once, and became a pretty radical preservationist for a few years. I wasn't radicalized to the point of stockpiling pipe bombs, but I was willing to invent bogus awards to butter up the mayor, to manipulate city bureaucrats and developers' lawyers and to publicly protest and in some cases viciously harangue all kinds of public and private citizens who would have preferred, and maybe deserved, to be left alone.
"You've become the neighborhood asshole!" my college pal Tom told me during that time. (But then, don't get him started on the police. He can give you a full 60 minutes of spittle just on the color of their uniforms, which should be light blue and welcoming and not black and threatening ….)
No, I had become "radicalized," on preservation. It didn't happen in a day.
That was 15 years ago. I still like old buildings, but as far as preservation is concerned, I am decidedly de-radicalized—out of touch with the preservation community, not sure how that movement's going and unable to remember the last time I wore a sandwich board. Now, depending on how the federal investigation of Chicago police practices goes, I'm prepared to be re-radicalized as anti-Rahm Emanuel. For Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, I'm developing a sharp distaste that could turn into a responsibility to act. In fact, at all times, I'm ready (and kind of itching, because being radicalized is fun) to be radicalized on any number of subjects: feminism, gay rights, economic fairness, pro-peace, anti-Trump or anti-ISIS.
Could I ever be radicalized to the point where I would stockpile pipe bombs and arm myself to the teeth? (And could I radicalize my wife in such a way?)
I doubt it. But that's my point: There are shades of radicalization. An old man once confessed to me that he'd been a "closet radical" all his life, but I knew the guy, and the most radical thing he ever did was skip church a few Sundays. Some of these young ISIS targets are able to be "radicalized" over a weekend on Twitter, for the same psychological reason kids convince each other it's cool to smoke behind the school. And in the last few months I've also read about people radicalizing themselves, perhaps with a book called Self-Radicalization for Dummies.
"Radicalized" could be a useful term, and we're probably using it a lot these days because it describes a newly important phenomenon succinctly. But (as David Brooks explains in today's New York Times), it's not a succinct problem.
Radicalization is not an on-off switch, it's a dimmer. And it turns both ways. And if we're going to confront a difficult and complex reality with sane and just solutions, I think it's going to be important to keep all that in mind, if we're intellectually able—and not too radicalized ourselves—to do so.
Those of us who weren't born yesterday shouldn't rely too heavily on words that were.