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A large, red, angry monster made up of a community of people.

I Am We

What causes someone to sacrifice self for community?

By Maureen Harmon
Illustrations by Skip Sterling


On August 15, 1984, Güneş Murat Tezcür watched on television as the violence in Turkey grew. That day, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched an uprising against the Turkish government. The group, which was established in the late 1970s, had a history of violence, but this was something else. The PKK demanded the establishment of a Kurdish state within and beyond Turkey’s borders. (Kurdistan today occupies parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia.) They claimed to fight the perceived oppression of Kurds, the largest minority group in Turkey, whose language, names and culture were banned in 1980 following a militant coup of the Turkish government.

Tezcür, who later earned a B.A. in international relations and political science from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, never experienced the violence firsthand.

His family members never joined the militant groups and were never subjected to violent acts. He had opportunity and education. So, as a teenager, watching events play out behind the safe distance of a screen, says Tezcür, it was easy to view those picking up arms or planning attacks as terrorists. But age and education gave him more perspective.

“If there’s one guy who blows himself up and kills a bunch of people, OK, it’s terrorism. There’s no question about that,” says Tezcür. “But if [that violence] comes from entire communities being radicalized and pursuing more militant goals, it becomes something different.”

Tezcür eventually headed to the United States, specifically the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science. As he worked toward his degree, a question nagged him: What would have happened had he been born in a different part of Turkey — perhaps the southeast, where the violence and oppression were most prevalent?

“Would I have chosen the same route that these people did and become a militant — fight and basically get killed before reaching the age of 25?” Tezcür asks. It is one thing to kill people over politics, he says, but there was a tougher question he couldn’t quite sort out: Why would ordinary people — people who hadn’t been directly affected by violence, people like him — risk their lives for it?

Why would ordinary people — people who hadn’t been directly affected by violence, people like him — risk their lives for it?

Today Tezcür is the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies, one of the first positions of its kind in the U.S., and an associate professor of political science at UCF. He has spent the past decade exploring the answers to such questions. The theories he has studied for why ordinary people join armed movements and risk their own lives were clear-cut. Plenty of scholars have argued that the reason for such actions is selfishness. In other words, the fighter can gain money or social status by acting on behalf of a rebellion. There may be a family history of militantism or a seeking of revenge or justice.

But there was another group of rebel fighters who didn’t fit the mold.

“When you start asking questions like ‘Have you ever been targeted by the state forces? Was there anybody in your family who joined the insurgents? Did you participate in any political events? Were you very poor?’ Once you realize that most of the answers to these questions are negative, then you become more curious, because the classical explanations are not very helpful,” Tezcür says.

These conversations were at the root of Tezcür’s research as he established and published the Kurdish Insurgency Militants Dataset, a document that accounts for the geographic, demographic, historic, socioeconomic and political motivators of more than 8,000 PKK militants who died between 1984 and 2012, as well as nearly 70 personal interviews with family members of the deceased conducted by Tezcür over the last few years.

One big motivation he found is what’s known as altruistic punishment, punishing a third party at the expense of oneself. He cites Greek mythology as an example, telling the story of Antigone, the sister of Polynices and Eteocles, two brothers who couldn’t agree on sharing power over Thebes and fought in a battle that took both of their lives. The king, Creon, vowed punishment by death should anyone bury or even mourn Polynices. But Antigone, the grieving sister, defied the king’s orders.

“Many individuals whose relatives joined the insurgency and got killed also have moral outrage when security forces do not allow for their proper burial,” Tezcür says. “As a response, they join the insurgents, a behavior that can be characterized as altruistic punishment.”

Violence and death don’t always have to be at the heart of altruistic punishment. In fact, after the financial crisis in 2008, Americans wanted to punish those who received American International Group (AIG) insurance corporation bonuses in 2009. According to James Surowiecki in a March 18, 2009, New Yorker article, the American people were so outraged at the hefty bonuses amid bank bailouts that they were willing to demand them back for the people, even though such a demand could ultimately cost individual taxpayers. “In other words,” wrote Surowiecki, “people are willing to make themselves worse off … in order to ensure that others don’t get undeserved rewards.”

Tezcür recalls the story of a young Kurdish college student: The woman came from a lower-middle class family and didn’t live near the battle zone. As she headed for college, there was no sign she would join the insurgency. While at school, she developed a collective perception of the Kurdish people, and she identified with it, becoming a Kurdish activist. A few months later she disappeared. She had joined the insurgency and fought for three or four years before she was killed.

“If I’m a Kurdish individual, and I feel that my political identity — not necessarily my personal identity — is under threat, then I am more likely to take risks to fight against these dangers,” Tezcür says. “This means that I am more likely to take arms and fight so that the Kurdish identity can survive.” The student’s sacrifice was for the larger cause — the community.

“You are willing to take some personal cost to punish the people who are responsible for the suffering of your own people,” Tezcür says. Think of the protestors and counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white nationalist marchers and the Black Lives Matter protestors collided — a mass of individuals risking their own safety and lives for the larger groups they identified with.

We are not always clear-cut individuals who make rational choices by carefully weighing the pros and cons of our decisions.

Tezcür’s theory, backed by years of extensive research, is rooted in behavioral economics — the idea that we are not always clear-cut individuals who make rational choices by carefully weighing the pros and cons of our decisions. Instead, many psychological factors contribute to our choices: subconscious or conscious biases, life circumstances and instant gratification at the cost of long-term goals. Tezcür saw how such factors were in play while interviewing the families of dead insurgents about why their loved ones joined a violent movement that came with a high chance of dying.

It all makes sense from a psychological perspective, says Charles Negy, UCF associate professor of psychology. Even if an individual hasn’t been directly affected by specific circumstances, there are “multiple factors, multiple determinants that would influence someone to join a group that would be inclined to engage in violence for a cause,” he says. When we identify with a group, we can lose sight of the fact that we are individuals with different life experiences. Individuals tend to do things when they’re in a group that they might not do if they were alone, such as when the previously nonviolent college student chose to fight the Turkish military.

Collectively identifying with some identity characteristic (such as race or kinship) is not necessarily a bad thing. People could just be proud of where they come from,” says Konstantin Ash, an assistant professor of political science at UCF who grew up in Russia watching the collapse of the Soviet Union, the uprising in the south of Chechnya and an attempted coup.

Ash, who also studies why ordinary people engage in political conflict, interviewed 1,000 people in Kyrgyzstan — both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks — in 2017 for a survey to determine why people spontaneously engage in ethnic riots.

Kyrgyzstan saw plenty of violence after the fall of the Soviet Union, says Ash. The collapse left an immediate imbalance within the mountainous region of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where no clear boundary had been drawn. Large swaths of ethnic Uzbeks woke up in an ethnically Kyrgyz-majority nation.

Great violence erupted in 2010 with hundreds — largely Uzbeks — killed when young men took up arms, fought for several days against their neighbors, then put down their weapons and went about their lives.

To study the phenomenon, Ash randomly assigned respondents in inflammatory stories and saw how they affected their response to the riots — whether or not they felt violence was warranted. “I assign them a story of chauvinistic nationalism, telling them that Kyrgyz or Uzbeks are the only people responsible for the economic success of the country, for example. Then I ask whether it is acceptable to use violence against somebody in an opposing nation or group.”

Through his study, Ash found that this sort of violence — spontaneous violence with a wide swath of participants — erupts due to exposure to chauvinistic nationalism and insecurity. “If people feel like there’s no higher authority that’s going to protect them or their family, then they’re more likely to say, ‘Well, we need to really defend things,’ or ‘We need to really go and get these people.’ ”

Spontaneous and planned violence by ordinary individuals can have a number of motivators, and while it’s tough to deny the role of rumor and propaganda, social identity theory may play another role. As Ash points out, when the Kyrgyz or Uzbeks were fed chauvinistic nationalism, they took their collective identity to another level. “They weren’t just proud, they thought they were better than everybody else,” says Ash.

For Tezcür and Ash, group identity is clearly a powerful factor in the political violence we see throughout the world today.

Negy emphasizes the risks involved in such thinking: “It is my own personal and professional opinion that no one should be so attached or blindly in love with a group identity because you may end up making some bad decisions.”