New direction in U.S. strategy for domestic terrorism

shutterstock_1041104The White House today released a new national strategy - the first of its kind, it says - to combat "homegrown" terrorism. It's a very interesting document that responds to the social science research mounting over the past decade into the causes of terrorism. For example:

Violent extremist narratives espouse a rigid division between us and them that argues for exclusion from the broader society and a hostile relationship with government and other communities. Activities that reinforce our shared sense of belonging and productive interactions between government and the people undercut this narrative and emphasize through our actions that we are all part of the social fabric of America.

While the report says the priority is preventing homegrown extremism inspired by al-Qaeda, you'll notice that there is no reference to religion as a motivating factor for terrorism. Violent extremists win recruits by exploiting their alienation. That's the underlying issue. Focusing on Islam as a cause of terrorism only serves to alienate the very community most needed to cooperate against those small groups of "homegrown" radicals inspired toward violence by extremists they follow on the Internet.The "fundamental precept" of the new strategy is respect for constitutional rights. "The Administration recognizes the potential to do more harm than good if our Nation's approach and actions are not dutifully considered and deliberated," the plan says. I take that as a message to the FBI and immigration authorities.The plan encompasses a "National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners." It calls for efforts that "promote immigrant integration and civic engagement, protect civil rights, and provide social services, which may also help prevent radicalization that leads to violence."In my view, the plan is an overdue response to the calls of academic researchers, Muslim community leaders and others who have long argued that heavy-handed tactics aimed at preventing terrorism often cause more harm than good. But can this be implemented? Federal law enforcement agencies don't cooperate very well with each other, much less local police.Photo: Morgan Rauscher / Shutterstock.com

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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