Radicalization: what is it good for? The song, “War? What is it good for?”, tells us that war is worth “absolutely nothing!” Is radicalization the same? Just something that turns everyday, ordinary people into gun-toting, bomb-throwing terrorists? The media give us that image after every new terror incident here in the U.S. or in Europe involving presumed Islamists. How did these people turn into suicide bombers, gunmen/women, decapitators, torturers, or whatever? Well, it must have been “radicalization.” So then we need to know how that happened. Where and when did their radicalization start? Was it from a web site? Or the influence of a religious leader or friends or family or even a spouse?

Radicalization is so dangerous and evil that academics now study it at such places as the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London or the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. France has established a de-radicalization center, and a district judge on the Federal Court in Minneapolis issued an order for risk and de-radicalization assessment for four people who wanted to travel to Syria to join ISIS.

Apparently radicalization inevitably leads to political violence and the need for authorities to find ways to “de-radicalize.” Really? Reminds me of what happened some 40 years ago when I took my then 9-year-old daughter to a demonstration against the war criminal Henry Kissinger, who was going to speak at Ohio State University. One of the hostile and anonymous notes I got afterward complained that, simply having my daughter stand with us on a picket line outside Mershon auditorium and pass out fliers was going to turn her into “a gun-toting revolutionary.”

My radicalization started in 1965, during my second semester in college. My parents were working-class but had aspirations to be middle class. They always voted Republican and were staunchly anti-communist, especially my mother whose family roots were Czech. They were Roman Catholic, and I grew up hearing about how the Soviet Union oppressed religious freedom behind the so-called Iron Curtain. When I started college, I was planning to major in aeronautical engineering and volunteered for Air Force ROTC, intending to be career military. A year later, I was out of ROTC and moving along a path that would take me into the streets as an anti-war and civil rights activist.

During my second semester at the University of Illinois, I took a course on social psychology that captivated me. By the end of that semester, I switched majors to psychology and got a part-time job working as a research assistant with Earl Davis, the professor who had taught the course. Thanks to him, I began my trek down the long road of radicalization. Through him and the many other people I met who were involved in both the anti-war and civil rights movements, I started to develop an alternative vision of the world and how it works.

My experience in Air Force ROTC also had a powerful impact on me. Part of what led me to the idea of a career in the Air Force was an uncle who was a career non-commissioned officer, as well as the anti-Soviet Union propaganda of my childhood. I grew up on the post-World War II image of the U.S. as the savior of the world from the Nazis and then the Communists. But one of the ROTC courses I took had a component on global nuclear war. I remember the instructor saying with pride that the U.S. had the capacity to destroy the world 25 times over. We then had an arsenal of at least 25,000 nukes. That statement stunned me, and for perhaps the first time I realized that there were people who truly believed it was better to destroy the planet than to live a different life – better dead than red. A few years earlier, a social studies teacher in middle school overheard a conversation I was having with a classmate about a TV show about World War II we had watched the night before. He said that we had no idea what war was really like. His comments finally penetrated my mind after that particular class.

Vietnam was heating up during my first year in college, and the rapid escalation in the number of American soldiers being drafted and sent there started during my sophomore year. Thanks to TV coverage, I also witnessed the vicious police brutality aimed at civil rights demonstrators. It gradually became clear to me – a college student with a draft deferment – who was most likely to end up as cannon fodder in Southeast Asia. My own encounters with police, military, and the general public as I participated in more and more demonstrations, rallies, and political events and meetings showed me who was truly violent – not those of us in the streets but those who opposed and hated what we stood for. One of the biggest moments of radicalization for me was the visit I got from two FBI agents in my dorm room and their threats to have me expelled if I continued exercising my first amendment rights.

I was at the DNC in Chicago in 1968 and the October Moratorium in Washington, DC in 1969 and at many smaller events. The vast majority of us who became leftists and radicals were not the ones engaging in violence. I grew up with guns and used them when I was a teenager, mainly just target shooting. But radicalization made me less and less willing to pick up a gun, and it has been many years now since I touched one – or had the desire to touch one.

Yes, there were radicals who became violent. The Weather Underground and the SLA come to mind. I challenge the prevailing image of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, who were smeared as armed and dangerous domestic terrorists by the FBI’s COINTEL disinformation program. Still, only a very small number of radicalized youth turned to violence as the solution to America’s problems.

I witnessed the death and destruction of the Vietnam War. I saw the violence by mobs and authorities during the civil rights era. For virtually my whole life, I have lived in a nation that has been waging war on someone. Young people are experiencing that with the continuing police violence against Black youth and men. Many of Donald Trump’s supporters are full of hate and rage and identifying Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants and anyone else who is different from them as the problem with this country – rather than themselves. They now tweet how they are ready to use their “second amendment rights” to “free” America from Clinton’s tyranny when she wins the “rigged” election. Young people today are exposed to the machinations of Wall Street and the way the very wealthy are sucking up the wealth of this country. What they have experienced is not radicalizing? Did the Occupy Wall Street movement turn its participants into gun-toting, bomb throwing radicals? Is Black Lives Matter who is pulling the trigger?

It’s not us radicals – those of us who experienced radicalization then or now – who are for the most part the perpetrators of violence. What radicalization did to me was to help me become a more compassionate and caring human being, who could see the destruction both domestically and internationally waged by this country and its leaders. Radicalization gave me a deeper sense of what it means to be human.