The horrific shootings in El Paso and Dayton that killed at least 31 people gave the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and their Republican opponent, President Donald Trump, an opportunity to say what they would do to stop violent extremism and targeted violence in the United States. They got some things right but most things wrong, in strikingly different ways that reflect the partial or false understandings and paralysis of action in the current political environment.
Evil. Trump tweeted in the aftermath that the attacks were “an unspeakable act of evil.” That could be understood as a moral condemnation if it wasn’t coming from a man with few morals regarding his own behavior or policies. Of course, putting the blame on evil makes no mention of the obvious links between his hateful rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies and the El Paso killer’s manifesto, which echoed the president’s language about an “invasion” of migrants across the southern U.S. border by claiming that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Mental Illness. Following the shootings, Trump echoed the pet explanation of Republicans in concluding, “This is also a mental illness problem … These are people that are very, very seriously mentally ill.” While evidence is beginning to emerge that the Dayton killer may have had mental health issues and it is true that several studies have found higher rates of certain mental health problems in some persons who attempt or commit extremist or targeted violence, the evidence is far from conclusive. To claim that mental illness causes violent extremism and targeted violence is a falsehood and gross exaggeration, designed to absolve others of responsibility for the causes of such attacks.
Importantly, what’s significantly missing are any new policy proposals, such as increasing the capacity of communities to identify those at risk for violence and get them help before it’s too late, or enabling the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to actually study the causes of gun violence in the United States just like they study the roots of other epidemics. Republicans in Congress have been denying the CDC money for gun violence research for nearly two decades and last year rejected a proposal to give $10 million to the agency for this purpose.
Culture of Hate. Among Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont tweeted: “Your language creates a climate which emboldens violent extremists.” Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey linked the shooting in El Paso to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and its amplification of racism. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted, “We need to call out white nationalism for what it is—domestic terrorism.” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Trump was condoning white nationalism and that “hate is being legitimized from on high.” Former Vice President Joe Biden said the problem was “a president who stokes the flames of hatred and coddles white supremacists with messages of support.”
The Democratic candidates are absolutely correct to focus their comments on a culture of hate being spread from the White House. However, government and law enforcement have struggled for years to focus adequately on white nationalism and domestic terrorism and to challenge the culture of hatred. There may indeed be a Trump bump to white nationalism, but the problem is much larger than Trump and will continue when he leaves office, unless policies and programs are put in place — and significant resources are devoted — to counter the white nationalist movement and prevent its further spread.
Guns. Biden essentially advocated taking on the National Rifle Association with his call to prohibit sales of assault weapons and institute a national buy-back program to retrieve at least some of those that Americans already own. He noted that he wouldn’t support confiscation from owners. Senator Kamala Harris of California reiterated her call for getting guns out of the hands of those who are clearly a danger to themselves or others. Booker wants further gun control such as nationwide gun licensing.
While lacking much, if any, bipartisan support, these measures are certainly called for, given the clear evidence that access to guns drives our national epidemic of gun violence. But addressing violent extremism requires additional, different strategies to confront the ideology and those ready to kill by any means, including but not limited to guns.
Is that asking too much of our political leaders? We don’t think so. In the face of national epidemics of violent extremism and gun violence, those leaders must offer more than old solutions and diagnoses driven more by politics than evidence and facts – or, when it comes to the President, even fear mongering.
A “Whole of Society” Solution
The United States needs a comprehensive solution that recognizes the importance of doing more than making it harder for guns to get into the hands of the wrong people and taking away guns from those who have no business owning one. That means treating domestic terrorism as seriously as the United States treats international (meaning “Jihadi-inspired”) terrorism, without the counterproductive human rights violations that have marred foreign efforts, of course. It also requires basing solutions on the public-health concept of prevention, by curbing the spread of the “disease” and promoting healthy behaviors and environments.
The 24-hour news cycle and the accelerating presidential campaign exacerbate the tendency for politicians and policymakers to spend more time thinking about what to say following each attack than about developing a comprehensive strategy for preventing future tragedies. With Trump indicating he is “open and ready to listen and discuss all ideas that will actually work and make a very big difference,” here are a few to get the ball rolling:
First: Call for the formation of a bipartisan task force for the prevention of extremist and other targeted violence in the United States. Under the leadership of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Congress commissioned such a panel last year to develop new approaches for tackling extremist violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Last we checked, many more American civilians have been victims of extremist violence (the full range) at home than abroad.
Such a task force would review efforts to prevent Americans from being recruited and radicalized to violence in the United States (whether linked to the far-right, far-left, or Jihadists) and make recommendations on new policies, programs, structures, and resources needed to prevent another attack. The commission would include representatives from universities, private foundations, and law enforcement, as well as governors and mayors, public and mental health officials, social scientists, religious and other community leaders, and CEOs. That would help find the middle ground between the polarized and politicized conversations that have characterized debates over violent extremism in this country. It also would involve representation from outside the security/law enforcement sphere to broaden support for proposed solutions and to craft what should be a “whole of society” effort to prevent America’s young people from being radicalized and safeguard communities nationwide.
Some may criticize such a proposal as kicking the can down the road. But the reality is that, right now, every proposal to address extremist and other targeted violence is viewed through the political affiliation of the individual proposing it, decreasing the chances of success for even the most reasonable proposals. Recommendations from a respected, bipartisan group may be one way to break this cycle.
Second: Develop and invest in a multi-level violence-prevention system. Ironically, Trump’s 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism commits the U.S. to lead the development of such an architecture overseas, ignoring the fact that nothing like that exists at home.
What might such a domestic architecture include? While the above task force could be charged with proposing the various elements, at the federal level, such a system would create a comprehensive national framework for preventing extremist and other targeted violence that embraces and emboldens the above mentioned “whole of society” approach. It would address issues ranging from guns to the role of social media, and would involve mental health professionals, schools, faith-based organizations and other community groups, law enforcement (including local police), and other stakeholders in a prevention effort that extends well beyond the Beltway and is led by cities, communities, and citizens around the country.
At the local level, initiatives could include community-level prevention and intervention teams of social workers, psychologists, school administrators, community advocates, and community-based organization like Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA or the United Way, as well as representatives from law enforcement.
These teams would be trusted resources for concerned family members or others in the community who see an individual demonstrating behaviors indicating he/she might be on the path to committing violence, potentially allowing intervention before a crime is committed; early intervention by a trained mental health professional could reduce the likelihood that violence will follow. Studies have shown that, in 3 out of every 4 cases in which people go on to commit violent attacks, their family or friends knew that something was seriously wrong but didn’t get help, call police, or take other action to stop attacks. People often don’t call because they don’t know whom to call other than the police and don’t want to risk potentially heavy law enforcement involvement.
Third: A White House “czar” should be appointed to spearhead the development of the framework and ensure that the issue, in all of its dimensions, remains a priority for the White House and the wider executive branch, and that it moves forward in a balanced fashion that emphasizes both the law enforcement and public-health dimensions.
Perhaps most importantly, the response would consist of a federal grants programs of some $100 million to $200 million per year to support community-based organizations interested in initiating or expanding violence prevention programs. That amount would be well above the $10 million over two years that the administration of President Barack Obama initiated with its countering violent extremism program, one that the Trump administration cut.
Although none of these recommendations is a panacea, they would set our government and our nation on more solid ground for addressing the national tragedy of domestic extremist and targeted violence demonstrated last weekend in El Paso and Dayton. Because darkness is sure to strike again, the nation needs political leaders who can take us all towards viable and comprehensive solutions.
IMAGE: People pay their respects at the makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting that left a total of 22 people dead at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart (background) in El Paso, Texas, on August 6, 2019. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)