In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, political leaders in Washington are rightly paying greater attention to the threat of right-wing extremism. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkis has vowed to prioritize the fight against domestic terrorism. Members of Congress have introduced legislation for new antiterrorism laws, and the Biden administration is planning an overhaul of federal agency responses. As officials weigh their options, it may be helpful to consider lessons learned from global efforts to counter violent extremism.
Much has gone wrong with the U.S. war on terror, as military interventions and repressive policing have sparked armed resistance and increased terrorist violence in various countries. At the United Nations, by contrast, the stated focus has been on political strategies that respect human rights and address the rule of law, although compliance with human rights standards in many states has been lacking. The Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy adopted by the U.S. General Assembly in 2006 offers a holistic approach that seeks to address the conditions conducive to violent extremism. The Strategy involves a two-level approach: coordinated police efforts to drive terrorist networks out of business, and political measures that address the drivers of extremism and violent conflict.
The political goal is to diminish the inner circle of hard-core extremists and isolate them from potential supporters. This requires effective policing to guard against future attacks and policy approaches that address the grievances of potential sympathizers, protect human rights, and encourage participation in democratic institutions.
How does this preventive framework apply to the struggle against extremist groups in the United States?
More effective policing
The priority now is to continue investigations and arrests of the hard-core Trump supporters who committed violent acts and participated in the siege of the Capitol. More than 250 people have been charged with offenses so far, as efforts continue to track down all who participated in or aided the assault.
Human rights groups support legal measures against the law breakers, but they have spoken out against legislative proposals to enlarge the federal government’s law enforcement authority. The United States already has dozens of terrorism-related statutes that can be used to investigate and prosecute white supremacist violence. As major civil rights organizations noted in a January letter to Congress, the problem is not an absence of legal authority but the lack of political will to take action against right wing extremism. They warn that new domestic terrorism statutes and listing mandates could be used against communities of color, which traditionally have borne the brunt of such measures.
Many observers have noted the critical failures of the Capitol police in neglecting to prepare for the Jan. 6 assault, and have contrasted that with the harsh treatment peaceful protesters for racial justice faced just a few months before. Some members of the force acted in a sympathetic manner toward the rioters, and several off-duty officers from other states participated in the siege. White supremacist and militia groups have infiltrated police forces in some localities, and racial biases pervade the criminal justice system. Effective police action against white nationalism will require addressing these problems and reorienting public safety policies.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, millions of Americans took to the streets to demand an end to racialized policing and the killing of people of color. Protesters have called for demilitarizing police forces and redirecting funding to violence-prevention and social service programs within affected communities.
Calls for reform and less militarized law enforcement in the United States parallel international efforts for security sector reform. Experience shows that a comprehensive community policing strategy can serve as both a means and an end for dealing with drivers of intercommunal violence.
In Northern Ireland, the 1998 Good Friday accord was followed by a major restructuring of police forces. The Royal Ultser Constabulary, a militarized force that operated in conjunction with British troops, was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has a more equitable proportion of Catholic and Protestant officers and follows a community-oriented form of policing in partnership with local neighborhoods. Applying such reforms in U.S. cities would mean creating independent police accountability mechanisms, regular law enforcement engagement with local community leaders, and creating more diverse forces that approximate the composition of the neighborhoods they serve.
In Colombia National Police forces that fought for decades against guerrillas are learning to apply gender sensitivity, community policing methods, and conflict transformation approaches to overcome continuing violence in rural territories.
The U.N. Strategy calls for action to overcome the drivers of violence, but what can be done when the declared grievances of a movement are based on delusional conspiracy theories and the “Big Lie” of a stolen election? How do we address motivations that are rooted in racism, in feelings of white fragility and the dehumanization of Blacks, immigrants, and other people of color?
Rational argument is unlikely to sway those who have such views, but the political strategy for countering extremism does not depend on changing the minds of the hard-core. The larger goal is to win over those who may be sympathetic to hardline views but would be willing to consider reasonable compromises on issues they support. The logic of nonviolent action as deployed in many countries in recent years is to diminish the power of the adversary by encouraging loyalty shifts and attracting the support of a sufficient number of third parties to win a political majority.
This task is easier when the adversary overplays his hand and suffers political backlash. That is clearly happening now. The rampage at the Capitol shocked the nation and turned off potential supporters. Polls afterwards showed 75 percent disapproval of the mob action. Trump’s approval ratings in his last days in office dropped to 29 per cent, the lowest of his presidency. Trump remains popular among most Republicans, however, so it is important to continue reminding voters that he incited the riot and is largely to blame for the desecration of the Capitol.
The current moment may be an opportunity for a national truth process, drawing from peace and reconciliation experiences in South Africa, El Salvador, and other countries. Members of Congress have introduced legislation for a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. Civic groups, universities and religious organizations could convene parallel efforts in local communities that foster conversation on overcoming racial injustice and the dangers of white supremacy.
Overcoming the deep polarization that exists in the United States will require many “improbable dialogues,” to use the phrase of peacebuilding specialist John Paul Lederach. Many conversations of active listening and respectful communication are needed in which parties with differing views can explore possibilities for finding common ground. The methods of conflict transformation are recognized around the world as essential means of addressing deeply rooted grievances and preventing violence.
Of all the lessons of international counterterrorism experience, this is perhaps most important. By building bridges of dialogue, while moving toward community-based policing, peacemakers can help isolate the extremists and assure better protection for all, while renewing public confidence in the ability to resolve differences through democratic means.