By Patrick R. Riccards
Violent extremism is a clear and present danger to the United States. Research study after research study demonstrates that ideology-based violence continues to rise, year after year, in the nation. The most recent data from the Anti-Defamation League is only the latest proof point.
Last fall, Life After Hate conducted a national survey, determining public perceptions about this trend. It found that 66% of Americans believe that the number of violent hate crimes has increased over the last decade, while 68% believe that violent acts of hate should be considered domestic forms of terrorism. But almost half, 48%, also believe that those who commit such acts cannot reform or change their ways.
Despite the data and despite the public understanding, we, as a nation, still do very little to address this scourge. We fear that calling out the violent far right is somehow a political statement, rather than one targeting hate-based ideology. We fear that calling out violent antisemitism is somehow an endorsement of islamophobia. We fear that calling out violent misogyny or attacks against the LGBTQ+ community is an affront to the male ego. And we fear that calling violent extremism what it is — domestic terrorism — is somehow an idea that can be misunderstood, misapplied, or misperceived as an overreaction.
As a result, much of the work focused on addressing issues of violent extremism in our nation is a nibbling around the edges of our societal fabric. We take action, but not too much out of fear of being targeted. We treat the primary and tertiary care necessary to help individuals disengage from extremism much like Hogwarts did with Voldemort — work that should not be named. We seek out labels that will not offend, we minimize the risks not addressing the problem causes, and we struggle to adequately discuss the benefits of confronting violent extremism and the societal costs of not doing so.
Or more simply, we get a question that I get far too frequently. When it comes to violent extremists in the United States, are they really worth our time, our resources, and our attention?
If we are to take violent extremism seriously, we need to adopt approaches that require individuals, groups, and the government to take specific action. To properly address violent extremism, we need to focus on moving from informing the public to building a commitment to a solution to finally mobilizing the public around specific actions, the same engagement model that has used for generations to address societal threats and public health crises for generations.
What does that look like for ideology-based violence? It means a more sophisticated level of informed public opinion than we have ever deployed, one that is necessary to reach consensus on both the problem and the possible solutions, generating a sense of urgency that ultimately leads to the action of adopting a change and integrating it into day-to-day behaviors of all involved.
In applying these to the rise in acts of violent extremism, it means one must recognize that each audience may be at a different point along this continuum. The informed and the uninformed. The ideological and the political. The victim and the assailant. The forgiving and the unforgiving. Understanding this is critical to designing and implementing the appropriate tactics to move them to action. Many a plan has failed because it was based on the assumption that one size fits all audiences. The growing victim list of acts of ideology-based violence are all too aware of the threats. But the geographic, economic, and social bubbles many of us live in allow us to discount, minimize, and ignore it in our day-to-day lives. Action can only be taken once we are all aware.
It means not only acknowledging the problem, but also being ready to commit to a solution. That means transforming one’s personal or societal concerns into a call to arms to demonstrate to a variety of audiences, in dramatic and memorable ways, that there are real solutions for addressing violent extremism, solutions that are the right ones for the particular problems we now face.
It means realizing that ideologically driven violence is not only an urgent concern, but it is also one that demands those available solutions. If one has been successful in defining the scourge of violent extremism in the right terms, it will be easier for us to state solutions convincingly.
It means being prepared for the inevitable reality that some people will reject the proposed solutions. This leads to the most difficult stage of the process. Some will be reluctant to face the truth regarding the size, scope, and impact of violent extremism today, others will say the tradeoffs and the costs that come from making ideology-based violence public enemy number one aren’t worth it, and will try to poke holes in our solutions. This resistance may be heightened by misunderstanding, narrow thinking, wishful thinking, or resistance to change.
It means that, once one has pushed through this resistance, they can weigh our choices rationally and look to a variety of options for moving recommendations into practice. As leaders in this process — with a special awareness of how decisions are made — groups like Life After Hate can clarify the pros and cons of each decision and allow time and opportunity for deliberation. Those that matter must see that violent extremism is a growing problem in the United States, that there are viable acts for confronting it, and that those acts are worth our time and attention.
It is only then that one can truly mobilize for action. Changing attitudes, informing the debate, and confronting what we find offensive is not enough. Supporters must move from passive acquiescence to active engagement, moving from concerned citizens to activists and champions committed to rejecting ideology-based extremism in our community and across the nation. We all seek to learn what we need to do to help the cause. One seeks out specific actions we can take to help us reach our goals. In addition, we will also need to make it easy and feasible for them to take the steps necessary to turn back violent extremism.
The process of moving from awareness to action takes time. If we, as a nation, are committed to standing up and rejecting violent extremism, then we have to accept that we are taking on ideologies that issues that are largely driven by emotion and in the absence of fact or truth. Ideologically based hate is emotional. Hate crimes are emotional. Domestic terrorism is emotional. There is no getting around it.
That is why we must harness the power of compassion, of understanding, of redemption, and of community to combat such emotions. If one believes that ideology-based violence is a clear and present danger threatening the our communities and our collective strength, we must engage it head on, with all that we collectively possess.