In the aftermath of last weekend’s neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, much of the country’s attention focused on President Trump’s refusal to call out the “radical white terrorists.”
Although it is reassuring to see the Department of Justice launch an investigation into the violence that left three dead, lost in the discussion is what more can be done to prevent future violent extremist attacks in this country whether committed by the far-right, far-left, or radical Islamists.
The tragedy follows an all-too familiar pattern: Deaths on American soil at the hands of violent extremists followed by debates over labeling and then calls for a tougher law enforcement response to the specific act of violence. Missing is an attempt to galvanize a “whole of society” effort on preventing the violence in the first place – one that includes all levels of government, law enforcement and non-law enforcement professionals, the private sector and, perhaps most critically, communities and community leaders around the country.
We saw this after San Bernardino, Orlando, and now Charlottesville. Each time, political leaders miss the opportunity to use the tragedy to mobilize the resources and expertise across the United States — both public and private — to stem future attacks. Among the main stumbling blocks continue to be the lack of national consensus, let alone strategy, for preventing and countering violent extremism in this country.
The post-Charlottesville context for developing such a consensus or strategy is particularly bleak. The Trump Administration has made it abundantly clear that countering violent extremism, or CVE, in the United States should focus on a single form of violent extremism – the radical jihadist stripe — an approach that runs contrary to that of just about every U.S. ally.
Further, it has proposed slashing the staff and budget of the Department of Homeland Security CVE office and eliminating future funding for the DHS program that supports community-led efforts to prevent young people from being radicalized to violence. This, while denying funding to a group of former neo-Nazis that works to de-radicalize white nationalists under the existing (short-lived) CVE grants program.
All of this is taking place despite the dramatic increase in those reporting signs of far-right radicalization in their family or community – with the mother of the alleged Charlottesville driver having reported her son’s threatening behavior to the police on multiple occasions.
There is the fact that white terrorists rather than their Muslim “counterparts” have been responsible for moredeaths on American soil since September 2001, and that the radicalization processes for these different stripes of extremists are largely the same.
According to Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, “an individual goes through some type of crisis, finds a message that both explains – in their minds – why they are being disadvantaged or victimized and identifies those that are causing the problem, and in the most extreme cases, also provides a justification for violence to help right the perceived wrong.”
Of course, the controversy around CVE in the United States pre-dates the current administration. Those on the left have tended to see it as unfairly targeting and violating the civil liberties of American-Muslims, even when framed around “all forms” of violent extremism. Those on the right see the “all forms” approach to CVE as too politically correct and insufficiently focused on what they (despite the evidence) see as the “real” threat: radical Islam. This has impeded efforts to develop a comprehensive, smart, and sustainable national plan to prevent violent extremist attacks in the United States. This, despite the fact that Washington D.C. think tanks have offered pragmatic ideas to include in such a plan.
Given how partisan and ideological discussions about CVE in this country are, the space for any practical proposals to emerge and receive support from pragmatists in Congress, as well as state, local, and community actors, let alone the private sector, is extremely limited.
To help create this space, Congress should establish a bipartisan commission to review efforts to prevent Americans from being recruited and radicalized to violence (whether linked to the far-right, far-left, or Jihadists) and to make recommendations on new policies, programs, structures, and resources needed to prevent another Orlando or San Bernardino or Charlottesville. Such a commission, which should include representatives from universities, governors and mayors, public and mental health officials, social scientists, religious and other community leaders, CEOs, and private foundations, as well as law enforcement, would help find middle ground between the polarized and politicized conversation that has characterized debates around CVE in this country.
The congressionally-mandated, bipartisan 2006 Iraq Study Group might serve as a useful precedent. That group’s report assessed the state of Iraq war and offered policy recommendations and was seen as critical to building bipartisan support for a strategy to change the direction of that conflict.
What happened in Charlottesville last weekend was a tragedy, one only compounded by President Trump’s response. However, it does offer an opportunity to move beyond the partisan and ideological divides that have stood in the way of building a national consensus and “whole of society” strategy for preventing future violent extremism in the United States. Carpe diem!
Eric Rosand is the director of the Prevention Project: Organizing against Violent Extremism and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served from 2010-2016 as a senior counterterrorism official in the State Department.
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