Congress needs to get serious about violent extremism 

Congress needs to get serious about violent extremism 
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There is a cancer spreading in our culture right now. The social fabric of America, once fraying, is now tearing.

This weekend should have been the conclusion of a dark week, a moment to retreat from the noise and spend time with our family and friends. The Tree of Life Congregation sought to do exactly that in Pittsburgh, in the serenity of a synagogue. Jewish members of the community came together on Saturday to host a bris, a holy ceremony where parents gather with loved ones to celebrate the birth of their son.

But peace in Pittsburgh was shattered by a hail of gunfire. Eleven people were killed and more injured, including police officers. The gunman reportedly yelled an anti-Jewish slur before firing upon the synagogue, while his social media activity suggests a history of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the shooting may be the deadliest attack on the American Jewish community in United States history.

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The incident comes on the heels of a harrowing week where pipe bombs were mailed to prominent leaders of the Democratic Party in an attempted terrorist attack. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, two African-Americans were shot and killed by a gunman who, according to the son of a witness, made racist remarks during the encounter.

Seventeen years after declaring the War on Terror, it seems that a new brand of terror has awakened in America. And as it stands, we are wholly unequipped to face it.

Two years ago, I worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where I helped advise an organization called the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force. The CVE Task Force existed to unite disparate efforts across the federal government to confront an arguably impossible challenge: Preventing Americans from radicalizing to violence.

At that time, we were primarily concerned with ISIS and al-Qaida, terrorist organizations that were using social media to promote conspiracy theories and drive Americans, living at the margins of society, to commit acts of violence. While law enforcement focused their attention on disrupting terrorist networks, our goal was to stop people from becoming terrorists in the first place.

It was a job often beyond the government’s capabilities, appropriate given our nation’s commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, and so we had to encourage civil society — mental health professionals, religious leaders, educators and others — to step up and lead. As local communities became more active in the fight against violent extremism, a need for federal funding arose.

Congress allocated $10 million for DHS to develop a CVE grant program.

In 2016, the threat began to change. As a spokesperson, I saw it in questions from journalists, who increasingly asked about the violence taking place at campaign rallies. Americans were being radicalized not by terrorists abroad, but by over-the-top rhetoric here at home and a media environment that rewarded incendiary comments with air time.

In January 2017, DHS announced awards for the CVE grant program, with $400,000 slated for Life After Hate to launch a nationwide effort to pull people back from neo-Nazism, white supremacy and other forms of domestic extremism that often culminate in violence. It was a modest start but an important attempt at dealing with a complicated problem.

The grant did not survive the change in administration. Five months later, without explanation, DHS proactively intervened to revoke Life After Hate’s much needed funding.

I was stunned. At a time when the threat was on the rise, our government prevented the launch of a nationwide initiative to provide help to disaffected Americans flirting with violent extremism. That decision, which is now rarely discussed, was a grave mistake. And after this week, it is particularly disappointing.

This is not reality TV. This is not a game. This is terrorism, and lives are on the line. We need to start asking the uncomfortable questions.

How are Americans being radicalized? Who is radicalizing them? What should our policy response be?

To start, Congress should consider resurrecting the CVE grant program, which has been all but dismantled. The program’s scope should be adjusted to focus on the factors that motivated the events of this week, once law enforcement has completed its investigations. More broadly, a bipartisan coalition in Congress should work to reevaluate our policies concerning domestic terrorism. The impact of social media in all of this cannot be ignored.

The nation is hurting. Condolences are welcome, but exhaustingly insufficient. We need better policies and leaders who will advance them. Americans stand together in times of crisis. Our elected leaders should do the same. Then, they ought to get to work.

Neema Hakim was a spokesperson for the United States Department of Homeland Security from March 2016 to January 2017. Previously, he served in the White House Office of Communications, researching issues related to national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter at @NeemaHakim.