What's at stake for Apple — and America?

As the feud between Apple and the federal government over access to the cellphone of one of the San Bernardino shooters heats up, we are fundamentally missing the mark on the most important issue at stake: countering violent extremism (CVE). Whether or not a technology company should unlock an iPhone to help the FBI is a red herring. It's time to tackle the elephant in the room: What do we mean by CVE and how we are confronting the problem at home and abroad?

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First, let's rewind the tape. A woman born in Pakistan meets an American man online, and they end up in a terrorist plot in San Bernardino, Calif. — an unlikely place for violent extremism to target. But that's the nature of terrorism — it happens somewhere, and will happen again, anywhere.

Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on his San Bernardino coworkers on Dec. 2 at a holiday party. They died hours later in a shootout with police. The 14 people killed marked the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

What's at stake now is not Apple stock, but how America is tackling the bigger issue of preventing future homegrown and foreign terrorist attacks.

The first truth to face is that we, as a nation, have not defined CVE. What does it mean to fight back against violent extremists whose sole purpose is terrorizing citizens? Who is in charge of stopping the threat?

The next president will inherit a CVE portfolio that resides with the "government" — as if the U.S. government were a monolithic entity instead of a myriad of agencies and departments all charged with countering violent extremism. From the State Department to the Justice Department, from the Pentagon to the Department of Homeland Security, from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to the FBI, there are multiple players working on CVE.

Add to that confusion the fact that some government programs are labeled PVE (preventing violent extremism), and others are CT (counterterrorism). Yet others classify CVE as one of the nine lines of effort of counterterrorism. Are you confused yet? Try reading a recent White House fact sheet stating that "CVE encompasses the preventative aspects of counterterrorism as well as interventions to undermine the attraction of extremist movements and ideologies that seek to promote violence."

Words matter when it comes to missions, mandates and resources and when you are building public support for policies.

Countering violent extremism, to most voters, means bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets. That is certainly part of the effort, but far from all of it. One piece of the puzzle is in dangerous conflict zones like Iraq, Syria and Libya. Another piece of the puzzle is in the West, where "foreign terrorist fighters" return from Middle Eastern battlefields. And a big piece of the puzzle lives online. But the latter cannot become the sole focus of our efforts. An overreliance on fighting extremist radicalization online risks avoiding the hard work on the ground, and confounds a tactic for a strategy.

Countering violent extremism is a convenient catchall construct lacking substance. The country deserves to know if we are talking about religions like Islam, deepening sectarian disputes in the Middle East, corrupt governments in Africa, lone wolves in America, failed states, etc. Is this an educational problem, a problem of unemployment, a generational divide, the bitter harvest from disenfranchised communities around the globe or hatred endemic to all people?

Definitions drive choices. In this case, we have different definitions by different stakeholders sowing inertia and a disunity of effort, with the taxpayer picking up the tab.

Countering violent extremism is a big definitional dilemma. In our view, CVE is preventing kinetic attacks by hopeless individuals who translate grievances, real or imagined, into everyday acts of horrific violence. It is a road traveled by mostly young people with nothing to lose. Terrorist thought and behavior begins in a community and ripples outward. Under that rubric, the answer to combating extremism is within local communities — in homes, schools, places of worship, on cellphones and laptops, in writings and videos — all the places where ideas emanate.

That's one definition. There are countless others. But regardless of how one defines CVE, the onus is on government leaders to spell it out and plan how to balance the choices that flow from the definition.

Whether or not cracking the phone will have a material impact on cracking the San Bernardino case remains to be seen. What should be top of our discourse, as a nation, is how we prepare or avoid the next terrorist incident. Time would be better spent unpacking the problem of countering violent extremism than arguing over unlocking phones.

Shahabian is president of Layalina, a nonprofit organization, and an award-winning filmmaker. Sonenshine is former undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and currently lectures at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.