Countering hate and radicalization requires grassroots commitments

As the SXSW Festival in downtown Austin, Texas, enters its closing days with music and festivities, law enforcement authorities in the city’s residential areas are searching for clues in a string of package bombings that left two dead and four more injured. Police are not yet willing to call the attacks racially motivated or rule out that possibility; victims in the first three explosions were people of color, and the two men injured in Sunday’s fourth explosion are white.

Still, it’s yet another reminder that we’re living in what seems to be two different Americas — one inclusive and accepting, the other full of hate and otherization.

{mosads}Christian Picciolini spent the first seven years of his adult life as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi. For the past seven years, he has worked with members of these movements to deradicalize them. He counts at least 100 right-wing extremists and sympathizers among those he has succeeded in deterring from a potentially violent path. Drawing on his own experience, he uses a combination of counseling, counter-narrative, encounter with “the other” and skills development as tools to show that there is “life after hate.”


In a remarkable panel at SXSW, Picciolini — along with an activist working with young Somali-Americans at risk from ISIS recruiting, and a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing who works with survivors of terrorist attacks to turn their trauma to constructive use — shared four key insights on how to counter violent extremism in the United States:

Call things by their proper name: The Parkland, Florida, mass shooter is a terrorist. His targets were, among others, Jewish students and immigrants. The Orlando nightclub shooter, likewise, was a terrorist. His targets were gay people. If the Obama administration could be taken to task for calling Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan a perpetrator of “workplace violence,” the Trump administration should be equally censured for not labeling as acts of terrorism the mass violence perpetrated by alienated and angry young white men.

As Picciolini pointed out, research shows a remarkable degree of similarity in the personality traits of individuals recruited by both ISIS and right-wing extremist groups. Members of both groups feel victimized, powerless and angry, and they want to affiliate with something that gives their life meaning and purpose. The similarities between the groups mean that it is possible to use tools that will thwart recruitment by extremists of all stripes; it also means similar tools can be used in de-radicalization efforts.

Messengers to counter extremism must be authentic and local: While there are some universals in the tools to counter extremism, and investment in their development is critical, the work itself must be grassroots and local. Government representatives are deemed untrustworthy in the communities where extremists recruit. The best messengers of an anti-radicalization message are community leaders and trusted individuals who share cultural and social capital with those who are at risk. That means that teachers, preachers, parents and youth counselors need to be enlisted in these efforts.

Mohamed Amin Ahmed, a panelist with Picciolini, described how his identity as an “average Mohamed” gave him credibility with the young men in his community who were hearing ISIS messages online and on Fox News and CNN. Picciolini’s neo-Nazi past meant that the young extremists with whom he worked felt that he “got” them and their sense of alienation.  

Efforts need to be taken to scale: Work by people such as Picciolini is by its nature labor intensive, and requires sustained engagement with vulnerable individuals. For every one person Picciolini is able to dissuade, there are a hundred more waiting to explode. State and local governments, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations need to get in the game to train a cadre of counselors. Not all will share the experience of someone such as Picciolini, but appropriate training can provide the skills they need.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, through its Strong Cities program and a new mayoral task force on combating bias is starting to pick up the slack where the Trump administration dropped commitments made under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. Funding for these efforts needs to come from somewhere.

Education shrinks the pool of vulnerable people: Extremists long have been active on the internet; now they are getting an additional bump as cable news and perhaps Russian trolls amplify their messages, sowing discord and polarization. To shrink the pool, counter-narratives are needed and a generation of young people must be educated on the inevitability and desirability of diversity in American society. Schools and communities must engage in this work; curriculum is needed. Promising efforts are being made in pockets around the country, but a major sustained commitment is needed.

Picciolini’s approach commands attention as one promising antidote to the violence and polarization that is poisoning our culture.

Meryl Chertoff is executive director of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute. Its new publication,“Pluralism in Peril,” provides actionable tips and best practice models for communities fighting back against hate.


Tags Christian Picciolini Extremism Radicalization Terrorism Violence

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