Criminal justice alternatives could shrink the domestic terror threat

Criminal justice alternatives could shrink the domestic terror threat
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Yet again, two young white men have been implicated in mass shootings, this time in El Paso and Dayton. In the El Paso case, federal prosecutors are treating the massacre as domestic terrorism. The racially-motivated shooter could be charged with a federal hate crime. 

Media attention rightly has identified the easy availability of guns and online right-wing nationalist recruitment as contributory factors in the tragedies. Calls for stricter background checks for gun purchases certainly are part of the response. But there is more we can do, and it does not require new law.

“If you see something, say something” is the well-known catchphrase disseminated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the wake of the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. In an effort to thwart further mayhem on American soil, citizens and members of vulnerable communities were deputized to share with law enforcement information about potentially troubled or dangerous individuals.

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The problem for those who considered stepping forward were the legal consequences to them, and more importantly to their potentially violent loved ones. It is a paradox that has led many Americans with valuable information to remain silent.

Consider the case of 22-year-old Adam Shafi, son of a Silicon Valley executive. After discovering that Adam had a number of flirtations with extremist ideology, his worried father contacted the FBI, trusting that they would derail his son’s plans and reward the family’s cooperation. Instead, the elder Mr. Shafi was placed in the nightmarish situation of becoming responsible for his son’s arrest and subsequent incarceration.

Today, the most visible threat on U.S.soil is not ISIS, but far-right extremism. From 2009-2018, according to Anti-Defamation League (ADL) figures, the far right has been responsible for 73 percent of domestic extremist-related fatalities. At least 50 people in the United States were murdered by far-right extremists last year — the largest number since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. 

With rising right-wing white nationalism, the same concerns come up as in the Shafi case. Before Dylann Roof went on a rampage at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., killing African American parishioners at Bible study, his family and friends witnessed, but failed to report, his troubling rants. A Washington, D.C., mother recently wrote a powerful, anonymous piece in Washingtonian Magazine detailing her son’s seduction and, mercifully, his apparent disillusionment with alt-right propaganda. In many of the recent mass shootings, family members, teacher or friends saw warnings but failed to act out of fear of the consequences to young men who later committed heinous crimes.

Part of the solution may be a departure from the criminal justice system paradigm. While some studies show that deradicalization efforts targeting violence-prone white nationalist adherents are less successful than efforts focusing on “push factors” (disillusionment with the movement, its goals or its leadership) Serve2Unite and the Free Radicals Project, started by former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini, use intensive encounters to restructure the narrative leading to violence.  Each relies on trusted messengers — people perceived by violence-vulnerable youths as sharing their experiences of alienation and anger. 

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Beyond this, experimental programs in "off-ramping" — using intensive social services, counseling and job training — have received little attention or funding in the U.S. but have yielded promising results in Europe and the United Kingdom. Groups such as GIRDS in Germany and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue based in London both have spent 10 years or more on developing and refining methods applicable to radicalization across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, one of the early acts taken by the Trump administration in 2016 was to redirect all of DHS efforts at counter-radicalization on the right to combating ISIS-driven radicalization.

Off-ramping could save lives by redirecting and supervising some of the most at-risk young men; prevent family tragedies such as the Shafi case by providing a safe reporting mechanism; and provide more solid data on what drives radicalization by providing case-study metrics.

Whether charges against the surviving mass shooter are brought in federal court or state court, whether it is called domestic terrorism or mass murder, the difference is largely symbolic. The perpetrators, and their 8chan and Gab fellow travelers, expect a prosecution. The most important thing now — as a passionate crowd implored Gov. Mike DeWine in Dayton this week — is that government “do something.” Off-ramping does not require new law, just allocation of funding and the political will to try something different.  

Meryl Chertoff is executive director of the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Seminars and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Follow on Twitter @AspenInstitute.