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Biden and Congress must take bold action to prevent violent extremism

Biden and Congress must take bold action to prevent violent extremism
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America has a new president but not a new country. Global conflict experts have sounded the alarm in the United States, and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was merely a manifestation of years of growing polarization and violent extremism, injustice and structural racism, income inequality and the decline of rural America. The Biden administration and Congress must act urgently and robustly to prevent and reduce violent conflict and extremism threatening the stability of the country.

While many countries are polarizing, the U.S. is exceptional because it is polarizing faster than any other democracy. Americans also witnessed their “exceptionalism” falter as leaders failed to contain or prevent the spread of COVID-19, leading to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S.  Additionally, a 2020 study found Americans are dissatisfied with the state of their democracy, and the Economist continues to classify the U.S. as a flawed democracy. 

President BidenJoe BidenHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Democrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Former Israeli prime minister advises Iran to 'cool down' amid nuclear threats MORE called upon the nation to heal and unite, and he has ordered a review of domestic extremism and elevated the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. These initial first actions, coupled with a relief and stimulus economic stimulus package, also must be met with a commitment of significant resources and concrete action to address the causes of violent conflict and extremism in the United States.

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The federal government must begin by investing in existing efforts to prevent violent extremism while working to understand the nexus between public health and extremism. The government must get better at tracking and analyzing data, and support democracy-strengthening programs and efforts to build social cohesion, especially at the community level, in places where there is significant risk of violent conflict.

The U.S. could learn from its decades of international assistance to conflict-affected and fragile states. Organizations in the U.S., including some that have worked overseas, are working to prevent violent extremism, strengthen democratic institutions, advance criminal justice reformcollect accurate data on violence, provide trauma healing to communities in need, and reduce political and community violence. This work is vital, yet sorely underfunded and insufficient to address the magnitude of the crisis.

In 2020 there were a record number of hate-related murders, and hate groups active in the United States increased by 55 percent from 2017-2019. Reports warn that violent extremism will increase in the coming months. If the U.S. is serious about preventing and reducing violent extremism, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, which provides grants to build whole-of-society prevention approaches, must be significantly increased to $200 million. Its current budget of $20 million is woefully insufficient. Additionally, a recent report concluded that Congress should allocate funding to the Department of Health and Human Services to better understand the nexus between mental health/psychosocial support, trauma and hate-motivated violence.

The U.S. needs accurate data to analyze trends and develop good policies and responses. The FBI tracks hate crimes, but the data are incomplete and the government’s efforts should be paired with nongovernmental efforts for real-time, national and publicly available data — including the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project (ACLED, Bridging Divides Initiatives (BDI) at Princeton University, the Anti-Defamation League, Communities Against Hate and Stop AAPI Hate initiatives, and the Fund for Peace.

To rebuild social cohesion, Congress should revitalize the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Services (CRS), the only federal agency dedicated to working with community groups to resolve conflicts. CRS has brokered agreements that have resolved underlying systems of injustice and division in communities experiencing high levels of conflict. However, it has been hollowed out and Congress should provide at least $40 million to rebuild this critical community-based peacebuilding capacity.

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The funding increases proposed are certainly not exhaustive and there are more resources needed for programs including democracy-strengthening, justice and inequality reforms, and revitalizing rural regions. However, the funding increases for preventing violent extremism, collecting more complete and better data, and rebuilding the federal Community Relations Services are critical first steps to preventing and reducing violent conflict and extremism. If Congress and the administration do not urgently act, it is at the United States’s peril.

Liz Hume is acting CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and has 20 years’ of leadership experience in peacebuilding and in reducing and preventing violence. Follow on Twitter @AfPeacebuilding.

Theo Sitther is a senior fellow and consultant at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and an expert in legislative advocacy, peacebuilding and atrocity prevention policies and grassroots organizing.