Reframing Prevention: If Government Won’t Lead, Civil Society Must Step Up to Curb Extremism

The acute urgency for solutions to prevent political violence cannot be overstated. As the bias-motivated murders in Pittsburgh and Kentucky show, hate is becoming mainstream, and it is becoming violent. And, as the recent spate of bombing attempts against political officials proves, conspiracy theories fueling violence have reached a critical juncture. Immediate and comprehensive action is not just needed – it is urgent. As the authors can attest, experts in violence prevention know what must be done; perhaps not every detail, nor the exact roadmap for every success, but efforts to engage civil society, reduce “us-versus-them” mindsets, and replicate drug-prevention and gang-prevention models that have shown success, all stand a good chance of reducing recruitment to nefarious causes, thereby reducing extremist threats. The political sphere has long debated the merits of such programs for preventing extremism – but the time to give prevention a chance is now. The reward for doing so is American lives saved.

We both worked in federal government, countering radicalization to causes like ISIS and al-Qaeda, and saw that the radicalization process to far-right extremist causes is highly similar. Yet the federal government’s approach to that threat is currently lacking, and its harsh rhetoric and disproportionate focus on the threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism is harmful both to preventing extremism to causes like that of ISIS, and lacks the resources and energy needed for countering white supremacist and other far-right violence.

The federal government has long advocated for non-government partnerships to prevent such violence. In light of the current administration’s inadequacies and singular focus, the non-government sector must embrace this critical juncture, not just to prevent extremism, but to rise to the occasion to lead in doing so. A non-profit-driven effort, working together with technology companies and state and local government partners, can provide the critical boost that prevention efforts need while also avoiding misgivings some have about the implications of an overly federalized effort.

While we have both worked on countering al-Qaeda and ISIS, we now serve at the Anti-Defamation League, where our data suggest, for instance, that 2017 saw the highest year-on-year increase in anti-Semitic incidents on record. In a one-year period, there were 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets, and 71 percent of extremist murders in the last decade were perpetrated by white supremacists. This requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-society response. Otherwise, far-right extremism risks spiraling further out of control in America.

Many experts have learned from drug treatment and gang-prevention programs – and from marketing to psychology, and other fields of human observation – that Americans can be manipulated by propaganda, conspiracy theories, and hate in their communities. Using those same categorical principles, the government, its partners, and independent members of civil society have created programming to reduce the likelihood that individuals would be radicalized to violence. For example, a call center in Houston takes voluntary calls from individuals concerned that someone they care for might be going down a dangerous path, and, using a model similar to a suicide-prevention hotline, offers voluntary resources for mentally healthy, non-violent paths. In the case of Google’s approach, they have sponsored Moonshot CVE (with whom our organization partners on other initiatives) to redirect web traffic of those seeking extremist content online toward information to expose that content as conspiracy rather than valid, thus reducing the likelihood someone uses a false conspiracy theory to justify violence.

The category that envelopes these activities is sometimes known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Some would call it other names – the current administration’s approach of Terrorism Prevention leverages the same principles but relies too heavily on relationships, programs, and funding for law-enforcement officials. Other similar efforts to build community resilience, Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE), or engage in Targeted Violence Prevention (TVP), may provide a more palatable approach because they are more community-driven than law enforcement-driven. Regardless of what we call it, we need action to prevent a next generation of attacks like the one at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Civil liberties concerns have been raised about government CVE efforts in recent years. If done appropriately and effectively, however, CVE programs would not provoke fear that fundamental rights would be impacted, especially in marginalized communities. Obviously, if efforts to prevent people from feeling victimized and marginalized have the impact of systematically marginalizing them, those efforts are inherently ineffective. Indeed, these voluntary programs are intended to help communities in need, including through elevating civil rights when needed, such as advocating for marginalized communities’ rights or preventing stigmatization to prevent ostracizing our fellow citizens. Concerns have also been raised about the fact that some CVE programs have focused too heavily on Islamist-inspired extremism, which may wrongly stigmatize American Muslims. But this serious concern can be addressed by programs being specifically tailored to the actual threat landscape. Many practitioners now recognize that the landscape within the United States does not justify as heavy an emphasis on Islamist-inspired threats while such high – and rising – far-right extremism threats loom. Programs must be given the capacity and support to address all forms of extremism, notably to include white supremacist extremism. Giving holistic prevention programming a chance would, rightly, include significant attention to far-right extremism.

Others believe that prevention programs are “soft” and therefore are either wasteful or irrelevant. We disagree. From a national security perspective, however, these types of programs complement law enforcement and other hard security measures, adding to our nation’s layered national security approach, one that prevents threats before they put lives at risk. And since they largely function on the pre-criminal side of the spectrum, prevention programming functions when law enforcement legally cannot be – thus respecting civil liberties, while making our security more effective.

Due in part to these competing political interests and disagreements over threat assessment, we have not done nearly as much as we can to prevent extremism. When the authors were in government, we did the best we could with what we had. Civil servants such as ourselves engaged with community leaders, convened influential leaders and experts, and conveyed how pathways to radicalization can lead to violent extremism, and how mental health, social service, and education providers could disrupt and intervene. These efforts were intended to focus on all forms of extremism, though, in reality, more on the ISIS threat after the spring of 2014, when recruitment to that cause posed the most significant threat to the homeland.

Most recently, the Obama administration requested, and Congress appropriated, $10 million in grants to empower local partners throughout the country to reduce marginalization that could lead to extremism, to counter propaganda, and to intervene in the radicalization process to off-ramp individuals. As the head of the office that released these grants and as a senior adviser consulting on them, we can attest that the intent of the grants was to focus prevention efforts on all forms of extremism, including domestic terrorism, which has long been a concern in America.

The Trump administration, however, declined to request ongoing funding, and cut the staff overseeing the program. The impact of those changes is that fewer civil society organizations will be equipped to prevent extremism in their communities, the government is less well-equipped through attrition of staff and program continuity, and – whether intentional or not – a signal was sent that the government would give lower priority to domestic terrorism than Islamist-inspired extremism. The government also cut funding to programs specifically designed to counter white supremacist extremism that showed promise – we believe doing so was a mistake. Further, the harsh rhetoric and discriminatory policies of this administration continue to stigmatize Muslims and fail to admonish and condemn white supremacists. In this environment, any programs, regardless of size and funding, will have significant difficulty finding success unless implemented through non-government partners.

At ADL, we have the data to show the severity of the threat from domestic terrorism. We have tracked anti-Semitic tweets, murders by extremists, an uptick in white supremacist propaganda on college campuses, and – most recently – profiles of individuals on platforms like Gab, including the alleged perpetrator of the horrific anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh. The time for prevention programs is before a threat metastasizes, and the future of domestic terrorism is grim. To be blunt, there is ample cause for concern. That means it is paramount that the government, private sector, and civil society build white supremacist and related domestic terrorist prevention programs on a much larger scale – now.

We need a revitalization of extremism prevention programming before things in America get worse. The time for non-government leadership and state and local government partnership is now. We are working to reframe extremism violence prevention. In short – because we cannot rely on the federal government’s leadership right now, we must work on better approaches without them.

The amount of resources taxpayers provide toward prevention of drug use and prevention of gang recruitment dwarfs that of preventing the clear and present danger of domestic terrorism – and that does not make sense. But we do not expect it to change. Instead, at ADL, we are stepping up as one of many civil society organizations to investigate domestic extremism, educate youth on reducing hate and bias, and work directly with law enforcement to counter implicit bias, hate, and extremism. In doing so, we hope to empower a generation of civil liberties-compliant, extremism-prevention efforts designed to prevent the next Pittsburgh, the next pipe bomb mailing, the next Pulse Nightclub, and others. But we are only one institution; in order to fully succeed at the national level, we need partnerships and we need them now.

Only through collective impact with the technology sector and state and local leaders can we achieve results at scale. Further, far too little has been done to measure the success of prevention programs that have been attempted in the United States. Instead of moving at the speed of government, we will only prevent future extremism if we move at the speed of innovation, and measure results to scale what works. If we do not do so immediately, the events of recent weeks may, unfortunately, be a prologue of what’s to come.

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan B. Greer

Director for Program Assessment and Strategy at the Anti-Defamation League. Follow him on Twitter (@Ryan_B_Greer).

George Selim

Senior Vice President for Programs at the Anti-Defamation League; previously served as the head of the federal government’s interagency Countering Violent Extremism Task Force.