With the attacks over the last year—including those in Charleston, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and now New Zealand, among many others—it’s time to collectively and unequivocally demand of ourselves that enough is enough.
The tragic shootings at two mosques in New Zealand yesterday are a turning point far too late in coming, but let us use this opportunity for self-reflection and, more important, action. Vitriol, racism, and hatred have permeated our public discourse to the point that we find ourselves frozen in political indecision and divisiveness. It is time to confront those who allude to violence or related conspiracy theories for their own narrow-minded purposes when politically convenient, but offer only meek platitudes when the consequences of their rhetoric are revealed. Our action must involve, most important, a strong reinvestment in countering violent extremism, or CVE, programs that focus more directly on groups like Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, misogynists, and white supremacists who have perpetrated the aforementioned attacks.
After 9/11, our nation’s national security infrastructure largely responded to counter Al Qaeda with law enforcement and kinetic action; we focused on the threat from Islamist extremism to the extent that it became almost synonymous with “counterterrorism.” For a range of reasons—some more worthy of consideration than others—we have only barely scratched the surface of investing in prevention, including preventing other types of violent extremism, and we have failed to proportionately address the threat from far-right extremism that is increasingly spreading across political borders through online platforms.
CVE is the category of activities that proactively seek to prevent radicalization and recruitment to violent extremist causes. This prevention model seeks to undermine extremist propaganda, intervene in the radicalization process to off-ramp at risk individuals, and disengage and rehabilitate those who have gone down an extremist path and seek to change. Yet, our investment in prevention has been sparse and requires some fine-tuning. After all, we know we can neither arrest and kill our way out of any kind of violent extremism problem, nor ignore the significant and rising threat from non-Islamist forms of extremism.
While the Bush Administration experimented with CVE and President Obama expanded it slightly, it has never been provided with the same level of authorization and resources that other federal priorities receive. In the Trump Administration, resources have been slashed: What was once a 41-person, $21 million per year priority is now a paltry eight-person and $3 million afterthought to prevent violence throughout the entirety of the United States. What’s more, the mission of these prevention efforts has not only failed to scale up attention to domestic terrorism and far-right ideologies, but also shifted even further away from doing so.
For instance, one effort in prevention included a call center in Houston to provide resources to those concerned about someone they know becoming more extremist, another effort would have created partnerships in Los Angeles to connect community organizations to mental health resources, and yet another would have enabled former neo-Nazis who to direct would-be recruits away from domestic terrorist recruitment. However, the call center’s grant will not be renewed by the Trump Administration, which is allowing the program to expire. The city of Los Angeles declined the grant due to mal-intentioned politics; and the Administration took away the former neo-Nazis’ grant before they were able to receive it.
Overseas, our foreign policy apparatus has struggled with this challenge, as well. The Obama Administration held well-intentioned “summits” to galvanize attention to the need to prevent extremism and expanded online counter-messaging efforts. Unfortunately, there was little new funding and no new authorities were provided by Congress. Implementers at the State Department, USAID, and other agencies ended up re-naming already tenuous programming to sound like it was in line with the president’s intent, and what few resources there were to prevent extremism were either too little to make a difference or hobbled by bureaucratic infighting.
Now, the Trump Administration has declined to build on what little progress there was, politicized extremism prevention issues, and named a former Fox News reporter to head counter-propaganda efforts—which continue to be plagued with uneven funding and an unclear mission.
And of course, there is the elephant in the room: to the extent that all of these CVE efforts could be managed and resourced effectively, they would still be set up for failure in light of the dangerous rhetoric of the president and his supporters. So many things this administration has done, from referring to “very fine people on both sides” (when murderous Nazis are on one of the sides) or attempting to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, is cheered by the very villains who embrace this hateful ideology and translate it into violent actions throughout the world. This rhetoric—and failure to address our domestic extremism issues—is noticed abroad by our allies and adversaries alike and makes it difficult to recruit influential community members to support our CVE efforts.
Enough is enough. In our country and around the world, a tide of far-right extremism is on the rise. This threat is urging Americans to turn against each other, and is playing out among our Kiwi allies who are falling victim to the same community-based hatred and vitriol. It is a national security imperative that we invest in preventing the next extremists here and abroad, regardless of those extremists’ ideologies or skin colors. Our social media has become weaponized and our communities are under attack—consequently, we must rise to the challenge to use all of the tools at our disposal to prevent this already significant threat from getting worse.