History Alum Alina Palimaru ’08
Works to De-Radicalize Violent Extremists
By Gina Myers
October 18, 2021
Violent extremist rhetoric and hate speech seem easier to access than ever, with social media and search algorithms creating pathways for radicalization in the digital age. The internet makes connection easier, giving terrorists and extremists a platform to broadcast their messages, find vulnerable people, build community and collaborate with others.
With extremism on the rise, Drexel history alumna Alina Palimaru ’08 has turned her work to addressing it. The associate research analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan organization working toward the public interest, says it is something everyone should care about.
“Extremism impacts on all of us. Whilst the chances of getting caught up directly, in a bombing, for example, are gratifyingly slim, we are all impacted directly or indirectly. Racial intimidation is a widespread curse that impacts disproportionately on certain parts of society, and everyone now faces increased security combined with reduced access – to public buildings, for example,” she explains.
“Everyone should better understand this curse on society. We all have a role to play in defusing division and identifying those close to us who may be drawn into this divisive mindset.”
Palimaru’s research has identified what draws people to extremist groups as well as what can help them leave those groups. On Thursday, November 18, Palimaru will deliver a virtual talk on the topic. She will be joined by Jeff Schoep, who led the largest Nazi organization in the United States for 20 years before exiting the organization and forming Beyond Barriers, a non-profit set up to counter the very extremism he practiced for decades. They will discuss what draws people to extremist hate groups and share real-world practices to de-radicalize those who have been brainwashed by racist propaganda.
“The work to get us to a safer and more tolerant society continues. Although violent extremism is complex, we exposed commonalities that can be addressed. Hating is exhausting, and interventions by family and friends can help. There are also opportunities for practical support. Lack of access to mental health care is significant, but far from the only answer,” says Palimaru.
“Helping people to better recognize the symptoms of and precursors to radicalization could help stem a family member’s journey to extremism. Exposing those at-risk to different cultures tends to enhance tolerance and understanding. Heavy-handed, judgmental and punitive interventions can be counter-productive in pulling people back from the brink. Education in improved critical thinking and healthy skepticism may make people less vulnerable to egregious propaganda.”
Palimaru, who is also an award-winning filmmaker, recently answered questions over email about the importance of studying history, her current work, truth decay and her least favorite memory of Drexel, among other things.
Why did you decide to major in history?
History, being the study of all that’s gone before, determines our future trajectory. To say that those who don’t learn the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them is an oft-misquoted cliché, but it is a useful truism. Sometimes history is branded as stuffy and irrelevant, but how can everything that humankind has done possibly all be boring? How we render history may be another matter, but therein lies the appeal. What people have done, and how they have behaved, set historical precedents, and create a platform for our future. Tomorrow, today will be history and if my talk is boring, that may be a good thing.
Did you have a favorite history course or professor?
Different professors have different styles, and some take time to warm to, but those who can set the scene in a relevant way, bridge the gap between then and now, extract the significance of key events, and identify the lessons to be learned are the ones who really bring the subject alive. I find any period can be made interesting with the right person and the right approach. For me, relevance and connection are the core of it.
Did your experiences as a history major in undergrad help prepare you for your Master of Public Policy and PhD in health policy?
Being able to identify what’s useful and relevant now, based on past experience – i.e., history – is actually fundamental to most walks of life. Personal experience is a valuable commodity, but with history one can draw upon the experience of everyone who has ever lived. What’s important is having the academic research skills and a structured inquisitive approach, along with a healthy understanding of the pitfalls and shortcomings of recorded history. This helps us understand more contemporaneous matters, such as conducting new research and developing new policies to improve the lot of we humans.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Drexel?
I have a least favorite one… cafeteria pizza. I hope that’s improved.
My fondest memories are of the Writing Center, then situated in the windowless bowels of MacAlister Hall. Basement life, with an inherent lack of a physical view, seemed to actually help like-minded students and faculty to broaden the horizons of their discussions, and expand the scope of their thinking in a relaxed setting. These informal collegial moments form some of my favorite times (along with graduating, of course!).
What does this opportunity—getting to speak to students at your undergraduate institution—mean to you?
It means a lot. This is a welcome opportunity to reflect on my journey, and quite timely too as I seek to develop my role in research and steer my career. In this process I have tried to imagine what I would say to my old self when in their shoes. Although focusing rightly on graduating with the best degree they can, we are all on a journey of perpetual learning – with days off for beer, movies and good pizza of course! Society is a thing, whether we like it or not, and denying we are not all interdependent will serve only to make collective lives worse. So mutual respect and understanding are important, playing to one’s strengths is good, but targeting one’s weaknesses will probably make us more rounded as people. Drexel was my first academic platform, it served me well. I was rather gauche and boring, I still am, but I am working on it – small steps.
How long have you been working at RAND? What do you like about being an associate policy researcher?
I have been at RAND three years, and the time has flown. Solving societal problems by establishing the situational facts, and then building effective interventions, is very refreshing. It feels like the antidote to today’s overly partisan and fact-averse mainstream narrative. Working within highly focused and talented teams has been great and using the truth to effect meaningful change has a buzz about it.
Is it fair to say that extremism is on the rise in the United States, or is it just more visible because of social media and increased news coverage? If the former, what factors are contributing to the rise?
That is an excellent question. In our report we cite evidence suggesting that since 1994 right-wing extremism accounted for the majority of terrorism plots and attacks in the U.S. This problem has persisted for decades and has worsened over the last few years.
Extreme views are often based on misinformation and false narratives. The factors that bring people to extremism are complex and interconnected. Research suggests that negative life events are part of, but not the sole cause of, radicalization. Abuse or trauma, difficult family situations, bullying can have psychological and behavioral consequences that are sometimes implicated in radicalization. Common factors included a perceived loss of control in key aspects of their lives, leading to unmet expectations, bitterness, and fear for their future. But we’re also finding that radical ideologies and involvement in extremist activities have addictive properties for many. Also, low media literacy and savvy recruitment approaches can conspire to prey on people’s vulnerabilities. The RAND term truth decay elegantly describes the challenges we face.
As academics we all have a role to play in defying ignorance, establishing the truth, and building a better future.
How does your work as a researcher inform your work in film?
Making good factual films requires solid research, so this was a perfect “in” for me. For many, the medium is identified primarily with entertainment, such as movies, where the big bucks are spent. But film is a very palatable way for people to absorb useful factual information, too. Using moving pictures and sound to argue one’s case can be very effective. Ensuring the core content is correct is fundamental, and has strong parallels with academic writing, but what’s different and in some ways even more challenging, is how to address the target audience in the most effective way. Using all the techniques of video communications is an art. Film-based knowledge transfer is of great interest. I don’t claim to have the creative talent, but I do know how to help to support researchers to achieve results that not only are correct content-wise, but can also hook and hold an audience to fully convey beneficial information. We garnered some awards which not only validated our approach but also provided further encouragement given the extra effort necessary in this medium.
From your publications to your films, is there any one project that you are particularly proud of?
Yes, the Choosing a Wheelchair film, for which I was an associate producer. With this film we sought to address the problem that many wheelchair users were not getting the correct chair set up for their needs. To me this project brought together film and health research in a way that bears academic scrutiny. It included historical insights, as well as patients and providers telling their own stories. The final outcome was a comprehensive introduction to the process of choosing a wheelchair to help long-term wheelchair users think through a range of important considerations with advice from technical and medical experts.
Do you have any words of advice for students who are interested in working in policy research?
When a policy gets adopted, change for the better can happen. Policies based on sound research have the best chance of success, and when it comes to tackling problems, success is good.
Unfortunately, we’re in a world where vested interests apply considerable force in order to steer policy for political and personal gain, so one has to be steadfast, resilient and professional. Fortunately, factual information garnered through correctly conducted academic research has virtuous power. In your academic journey you can acquire this power. For this you don’t need a mask and cape (and wearing one’s underpants on the outside is a matter of free choice, although not advised).
When it comes to navigating ourselves out of difficult situations, the fantasists rarely win. The application of tried and tested, academically robust methodologies win the day. I am a mixed methods researcher, and I think that combining numbers and narratives can help to enhance our understanding of complex problems and reveal sometimes unexpected truths. It is challenging, but every day offers something exciting and revealing, plus the pay’s not bad. Being useful is underrated.
“De-Radicalizing Violent Extremists in America” is on Thursday, November 18, from 10 am – 12 pm. This event is sponsored by the Laurie Wagman Initiative in Jewish Studies. Register here.