The Memo

The Memo: Homegrown extremism won't be easily tamed

On his first day in office, President Biden requested a review of the nation's strategy for dealing with homegrown extremism. On Tuesday, the public got to see it.

The document drawn up under the auspices of the National Security Council runs 32 pages and encompasses four main pillars. But while there are plenty of commonsense ideas, the forces that are breeding extremism won't be easily tamed.

A toxic stew of political polarization and inflammatory rhetoric has fed domestic radicalism for years. It's hard to see how that gets any better anytime soon.

Former President Trump is still propagating fictions about the 2020 election being stolen from him. Many members of his party are playing down the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, comparing the gravest attack on American democracy in living memory with a "tourist visit." And the nation's media landscape is well populated on both sides by big players who profit from stoking grievance and factionalism.

Those forces have already torn the civic fabric. Some instances of violence are virtually inevitable when divisions are so deep and intense.

Law enforcement and intelligence experts largely agree on the scale of the challenge - and on the difficulty of turning things around.

"It is the threat of the moment," said Frank Montoya Jr., a former special agent with the FBI who also served as the director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive from 2012 to 2014.

"What makes it harder for everyone is that it is so personal. It's not like it is us against some foreign threat. It is us against us - almost civil war-like in that regard," he added.

Former President Obama - who first rose to national prominence with a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that offered an optimistic vision of a nation that could transcend its divisions - these days warns that American democracy itself is in peril.

"We occupy different worlds. And it becomes that much more difficult for us to hear each other, see each other," Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper earlier this month. "We have more economic stratification and segregation. You combine that with racial stratification and the siloing of the media. ... All that has contributed to that sense that we don't have anything in common."

The Biden administration's plan does not ignore those factors. But, like everyone else, it struggles with what to do about them. Its prescriptions - one suggestion is better civics education - seem small-bore when set against the gravity of the problem.

Attorney General Merrick Garland introduced the strategy document with a speech at the Department of Justice on Tuesday.

Garland was candid in describing the deadly Jan. 6 riot as "a large and heinous attack" and in acknowledging that the nation's law enforcement apparatus "cannot prevent every attack."

He was also careful not to seem one-sided - he made reference to the shooting that targeted a Republican congressional softball practice in 2017, injuring six people, including then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

Garland also emphasized that the government's actions need to balance security with the protections to free speech and freedom of association granted under the First Amendment. "Espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful," he noted.

But the attorney general seemed more at ease in outlining basic, almost self-evident ideas - that there should be better information sharing between the various limbs of law enforcement, for example - than grappling with the underlying issues to which there is no easy fix.

"We must promote a society that is tolerant of our differences and respectful of our disagreements," he said.

Almost all experts in the field would agree.

But the current state of American society is such that, according to one recent poll, roughly one-quarter of Republican voters believe in the tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and a similar share believe that "true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country."

The dangers are self-evident as the toxins seep deeper into the population at large.

"There are always going to be violent elements that are out there. If they are energized by the political debate - and if there are people who see a benefit in stoking culture war - then they are going to grow," warned John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA's National Clandestine Service. "They are still going to be a fringe. But if they go from one-tenth of a percent to two-tenths of a percent, that's dangerous."

Sipher offered one recommendation not contained in the Biden administration's document - the creation of a domestic intelligence service, separate from the FBI and modeled along the lines of the United Kingdom's MI5 or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

But that kind of idea would be deeply controversial especially among civil libertarians.

As Montoya, the former FBI agent, noted, "We don't want to investigate people just because of what they say. But where is the line between that protected speech and the violent acts that can follow?"

Biden administration officials, including Garland, are trying to walk the line principally via tactics that focus on things such as improving risk assessment, deterring acts of extremist violence and disrupting recruitment.

It all sounds well and good - as far as it goes.

The virus of domestic extremism, however, only seems to be growing stronger. There is no real sign that the Biden administration, or anyone else, has found an antidote.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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