Democrats taking control of the U.S. House today with the start of the 116th Congress have a long and growing list of policy (as well as investigative) priorities. Included on it should be the development of an appropriate national framework for preventing extremist violence of any type in the United States, whether committed by a white supremacist, a neo-Nazi, or someone inspired by ISIS or al-Qaida propaganda. The Trump administration ignored the request from the 115th Congress to submit such a framework by June 2018 and has cut funding for locally-led prevention efforts. The new Congress should act.
The CVE quagmire in the United States: The Absentee Congress
Plenty has been written about the shortcomings in the United States in this area. The focus is typically on the unhelpfully labelled “CVE” (countering violent extremism) efforts in this country, which lag behind those of most U.S. allies. Some place the blame on the executive branch; some argue for more leadership and solutions from civil society and other non-governmental organizations; some simply say CVE doesn’t work.
Yet few point to the absence of any bipartisan congressional leadership on this topic. That dereliction of duty has been striking, particularly given the steady rise in anti-Semitic incidents, hate crimes, and far-right extremist attacks. The 115th Congress passed legislation and appropriated funds ($10 million) to the U.S. Institute of Peace to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent violent extremism in Africa and the Middle East. But what about violent extremism at home?
In the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, San Bernardino, and Orlando, discussions focused mainly on beefing up security to protect “soft targets,” enhancing local law enforcement capacities, and debating gun laws. Congress devoted limited attention to how the United States might learn lessons from and catch up to so many of its close allies around the globe that are successfully confronting rising levels of extremist violence within their borders. That could catalyze the development an ecosystem for preventing future attacks in the United States by extending efforts beyond law enforcement and involving mental health professionals, social workers, teachers, religious and other community leaders, parents, NGOs, and the private sector.
Part of the reason for this neglect lies in the fact that CVE has never been able to garner friends in Congress. Democratic lawmakers tend to see CVE efforts at home as unfairly targeting and violating the civil liberties of American Muslims. Republicans typically view CVE as too “soft” or unproven, or believe that initiatives encompassing all forms of extremist violence are too “politically correct” and insufficiently focused on what they (despite the evidence) see as the “real” threat of “radical Islam.” The Trump Administration’s rebranding of “CVE” as “terrorism prevention” has certainly not helped the cause.
The extreme positions taken by each side of the aisle, often based on caricatures or stereotypes of CVE, and influenced by the “anti-CVE” crowd, have never allowed room for practical, non-discriminatory proposals that comply with human rights standards to emerge and receive support from pragmatists in Congress (or beyond). This has impeded efforts to develop a comprehensive, smart, and sustainable national plan to prevent violent extremist attacks in the United States. Such a plan would go beyond policing and support the perspectives and needs of cities and communities.
An Opportunity to Reframe?
This year, however, may offer the opportunity to turn the page in Washington from a polarizing debate about CVE in the United States. First, of the 100 newly elected members of Congress, more than 20 have backgrounds in national security, and many ran as pragmatists committed to working across the aisle. Second, there is increased bipartisan recognition (perhaps except in the White House) that the United States faces a growing problem of homegrown extremist violence and that the threat from right-wing extremists is greater than that from “Jihadists.”
Third, there is more evidence than ever to show that the radicalization processes for different types of extremism are the same and that a comprehensive approach that seeks to prevent all forms of extremist violence is not politically correct but rather likely to be most effective in leveraging resources, expertise, and ultimately saving lives. Finally, given that President Donald Trump continues to believe that the solutions to rising levels of extremist violence in this country should be either to build walls or to enable more Americans to carry guns, one should not hold one’s breath for a thoughtful set of proposals to emerge from the current executive branch.
Look to Canada for Inspiration
For guidance on what such an architecture could look like, the 116th Congress need only look north. Canada faces extremist violence threats, including individuals inspired by groups like ISIS and al-Qaida and rising levels of right-wing violence, similar in scale and makeup as the United States. Like its southern neighbor, Canada is a federal system and a vibrant, multi-cultural society built on decades of immigration.
Yet, Canada, unlike the United States, has been able to develop a multi-layered approach to preventing radicalization to violence. There are five elements from this approach that the new Congress (and anyone interested in more putting in place a comprehensive framework for preventing extremist violence of whatever stripe in the United States) should consider adapting for the U.S. context.
First, the United States could establish and resource a national center to support and connect existing locally-led efforts to prevent extremist violence, as well as aiding the establishment of new ones. Support could include guidance and training. The national center on community engagement and the prevention of violence in Ottawa, which includes a grant-making function, has a budget of $35 million over the first five years and then $10 million annually thereafter. This stands in stark contrast to the current situation in the United States, where just about all federal resources for preventing extremist violence, including the one-time $10 million local grants’ program, have been eliminated.
Secondly, the United States should recognize that language and terminology matter when it comes to building trust with civil society and other local actors who are on the frontlines of most efforts to identify and intervene with “at risk” individuals before they commit to violence. Canada eschewed the acronym “CVE” and related jargon used by the previous Canadian government, which focused mainly on Canadian Muslims, because it risked alienating local stakeholders. Instead, it chose language more likely to appeal to relevant communities, i.e., “community engagement” and “violence prevention.”
Third, a national framework should be developed that strikes the right balance between the need for national leadership and local ownership in this field. It should encompass all forms of extremist violence, and not be drafted in the bowels of a federal bureaucracy by national security professionals. It should follow an inclusive, transparent, and consultative process with local stakeholders around country, recognizing that most prevention-related resources and expertise rest with cities and communities.
The recently released, first-ever Canadian national strategy was the result of more than a year of in-person and on-line consultations with communities, including some that had criticized previous “CVE” efforts, as well as with cities. Among the questions posed during this consultation process were: how local communities and frontline actors can participate in addressing radicalization to violence and its harmful impacts; where funding and other resources can be directed in order to get the best results; and what role the above-mentioned national center could play in increasing public knowledge about countering radicalization to violence.
Fourth, the federal government should support and encourage the development of locally-led, multi-disciplinary hubs for preventing extremist violence, leveraging existing platforms whenever possible. Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto have relied on existing platforms or created new ones, whereby a person deemed at risk of extremism is referred by a police officer or non-law enforcement local official to a “hub” that consists of medical professionals, faith groups, teachers, and housing and other local officials and NGOs. The most appropriate members of the hub then design and lead an intervention, which can include mental, vocational, or spiritual counselling. The idea is to identify people at risk and intervene before they head down the path to violence and to provide family members with options other than calling the police when they observe that their child might be becoming radicalized to violence.
Local police in Canada, because of their existing relationships and familiarity with the relevant communities, often play the lead role, although the Ottawa police now have a social worker spearheading the effort, given the sensitives in some communities to local law enforcement. In Edmonton, an NGO leads the initiative for similar reasons. Although the efforts are locally-led, federal government agencies – including through the involvement of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the national center – often serve as partners.
These multi-disciplinary, often locally-led, approaches to preventing extremist violence have become increasingly popular across not only Canada, but Australia and Europe as well. But they have largely failed to take root in the United States. This is due in large part to the stigma associated with anything that smells of “CVE” in many communities around the country. Where such initiatives have taken hold, such as in the Boston and Denver area, they have followed extensive consultations with community stakeholders. They’ve also been designed to address a wide range of their violence-related concerns, including those linked to right-wing or Jihadist-inspired extremist violence, and included little to no involvement from law enforcement.
And finally, a national network is needed to harness the efforts of the growing number of NGOs, communities, local practitioners, professionals (including social worker and mental-health experts), researchers, and philanthropists interested in helping leverage local expertise, resources, and structures to prevent extremist violence. Canada’s Practitioners’ Network for Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence (CPN-PREV) offers a model, as it supports the sharing of “evidence-based best practices and collaboration among practitioners, researchers and policymakers.” Training materials produced from this project support the “growing community of professional practitioners in Canada involved in assessing, preventing, and intervening with individuals who are at risk of radicalizing to violence.”
The new Congress has a menu of possibilities to choose from should it wish to move beyond the polarizing debates around CVE that have left the United States near the back of the class when it comes to comprehensive policies and programs for preventing future attacks like those in Pittsburgh or Orlando. The bigger question is whether, with everything else that lawmakers will have on their plates, they will decide to make the prevention of extremist violence at home a priority.
(Editor’s note: reflects correction in 16th paragraph for the location where police have a social worker spearheading efforts.)