Day after day, researchers are immersed in the propaganda of ISIS and neo-Nazi factions. But there’s almost no discussion of the mental toll of examining the world’s most dangerous extremists.
Charlie Winter, a London-based terrorism researcher, was dining with friends one recent evening when the conversation turned to whether it is ethical to eat meat. Someone brought up slaughterhouse conditions, Winter said, and he instantly grew uneasy. He stayed for a while longer, squirming, and then finally left the room. That word — “slaughterhouse” — had conjured images of one of the most gruesome ISIS videos he’d come across. The militants had filmed a mass execution in a slaughterhouse, casting their prisoners as the animals.
Because of his work, Winter has dozens of such images lodged in his brain, and there’s no telling what might activate a memory. ISIS atrocities interrupt dinner parties, casual conversations, peaceful moments with his family. Winter searched for information about how to process the graphic pictures swirling in his head, but he found almost nothing about potential trauma in his field.
In May, Winter wrote publicly about the mental toll of extremism study. Tucked into a broader essay about studying jihadist propaganda, Winter included a section called “Recognizing and Addressing Trauma.” The piece swiftly made the rounds among burned-out researchers, including several who had switched from tracking jihadists to white supremacists without a break.
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