You want to elevate the discussion about the violent extremist threat that the United States and much of the world faces right now? That is a fantastic suggestion! Let’s start here.
There are many angles that one could approach just how seminally awful the retweeting of material from the violent extremist group, Britain First, by the President of the United States was. I will not address all of them here. Instead, I will focus on two important lenses through which every single American should consider the President’s actions this week, and how they fit into the broader appeals that he has consistently made to his supporters.
The first is laid out in the attached article here. In it, Altman examines the function that this sort of tactic plays in the path toward the commission of genocide and other mass atrocities. He explains, “Some of the greatest crimes in human history have begun with moments like this one. Social scientists agree that attacks on an entire class of people — whether identified by their race, religion, education, or any other distinguishing characteristic — do not happen spontaneously. First the mob has to be primed. The targeted group has to be demonized through a campaign of hateful misinformation, always presented as legitimate information by people in positions of trust. Then the signal for violence falls on ready ears.” Altman focuses on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion book as serving a potentially similar priming function to the Britain First posts. One could focus on other examples, like the messaging of Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) in Rwanda in the early 1990s:
Related to the mass atrocity connection, but worthy of particular consideration (given the substance of the President’s tweets) though, is the connection to violent extremism. This event is a clear illustration of why it is important to approach the idea focused (ideational) and social movement dimensions of the Salafi Jihadist threat through the lens of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Doing so does not ignore or diminish the significance of the threat posed by those violent extremists who are motivated by a radically pure and/or distorted version of Islam. It simply recognizes that Islam is not the only ideational vehicle through which extremism is facilitated. There is absolutely NOTHING controversial about that statement; and until we recognize that fact, we will continue to be unable to understand the national crisis that we are in.
Ask yourself this. How is it that the people who get swept up in groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS end up there? Begin from the premise that that character you are painting in your mind of the person being radicalized does not set out looking to end up that way.
While some percentage of the people who end up in these groups certainly do set out looking for a permissive environment within which to act out sociopathic inclinations, there are many who do not fit that story. Any long-term solution to the violent extremist problem MUST zero in on making potential recruits less vulnerable and more resistant to the process of radicalization, while also disrupting the process of radicalization and holding those who promote it accountable. Surely everyone agrees on this. So let’s walk that forward and see how that applies beyond Muslims.
You only have to be minimally informed about the process of radicalization to know that charismatic individuals in positions of authority often play a central role in this process. While not an exhaustive list, the tactics that such leaders use often include:
The spreading of misinformation;
The communication of information that is run through a filter of affective appeals to tribalist belonging and stereotypes of “other” groups;
The normalization of formerly extremist and/or empirically invalid perspectives and sources;
The attacking and stigmatizing of sources of alternative perspectives and information as well as commonly accepted methods through which perspectives and information have historically been evaluated;
The dislocation of followers from the system which they hope to tear down or change;
The fostering of a deep sense of grievance through the portrayal of “others” committing outrages against what is good and pure to the in-group;
The valorizing of violence as a means through which problems are addressed and as a palliative for the sense of grievance that the in-group feels, eventually pushing more towards a view of violence as an end rather than a means;
Now stop and really consider that list. How does the President of the United States posting of those videos from Britain First—characterized by the widower of the Member of Parliament who was murdered by one of Britain First’s followers as the equivalent of reposting videos from the Ku Klux Klan—look, using that lens? How about the President’s broader strategy for maintaining the support of his base? How does all of this fit within the media ecosystem within which his supporters access and exchange ideas and information?
We have a very real radicalization problem in America. While I do not dispute the need for a serious CVE strategy that focuses on groups motivated by different Islamist worldviews, I think it is clear that we must begin to take our own problem seriously. It is unfamiliar for many of us to turn that sort of lens on ourselves. We are not conditioned to think that this is the type of problem that people like us have. But it is. We all need to think deeply about how we can, over time, help to diminish the vulnerability and strengthen the resistance of our fellow citizens to this sort of radicalization. In the shorter term, we should disrupt the ongoing process of radicalization and demand accountability for those who are actively leading and who are complicit in its promotion.