Over the past week and in response to the recent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia between neo-Nazi/white supremacist fanatics and those opposed to them, some elements on the American political left are now clamoring for the Trump administration to restart a long-ago discredited Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program known as “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE). This action alert from CREDO Mobile is representative:
DHS established the Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) program to protect communities from domestic hate groups. It provides funding and resources to help communities develop and sustain local prevention efforts. Life After Hate, a group that focuses on breaking down white supremacy, was the only organization of its kind that DHS had approved for CVE federal funding before Trump took office. Just weeks before the terror attack in Charlotteville, anti-Muslim Trump aide Katharine Gorka, wife of known Nazi sympathizer and Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, pushed the CVE to eliminate Life After Hate’s grant. Now, no CVE funding supports groups that exclusively confront white supremacy. Trump’s administration is planning to refocus the CVE program on extremism connected to Muslim groups only. That is blatantly discriminatory and completely unacceptable.
Tell DHS and key congressional leaders: Restore federal funding to stop Nazis, white supremacists and other right-wing extremists engaging in domestic terrorism.
Yesterday, a Huffington Post headline blared “It’s Not Just Trump, Federal Law Enforcement Is Not Very Focused On Far-Right Extremism.” As I noted last week, a 2014 survey conducted by Duke University in concert with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found exactly the opposite. Indeed, as I noted in that same piece, multiple governmental entities over the course of the last decade have continued to highlight the threat posed by neo-Nazi/white supremacist groups.
Just last year, a bipartisan collection of groups sent a letter to then-President Obama denouncing CVE programs, especially those that target Arab/Muslim-Americans. I’ve also had extremely harsh things to say about federal CVE programs vis a vis their targeting of the Arab/Muslim-American communities. Any federal program that targets people or groups for increased surveillance or other repressive measures because of their political or religious beliefs is, by definition, unconstitutional. It’s also operationally counterproductive.
In his 2007 book Thinking Like A Terrorist, FBI veteran Mike German offers this warning (p. 153):
…when law enforcement officers arrest the white supremacist terrorist his beliefs are featured prominently in the media and in his subsequent prosecution. The prosecutor takes advantage of the community’s disdain for his beliefs to paint him as an evil person. After his conviction the prosecutor asks the judge to sentence the white supremacist more harsly because of his beliefs. The legislature will step in as well, passing hate crime laws to enhance penalties for such race-motivated crims. What these prosecutors and legislators forget is that while this political cause is unpopular, it does have a following. Their reaction is going to be exactly the same as if their cause was popular. When the prosecutors and legislators emphasize the politics rather than the crime, that small following will begin to feel they are being oppressed for their political beliefs, and rightfully so. They would now have a more legitimate reason to resist the government, and a more effective recruiting campaign.
Reviving the discredited CVE framework would only confirm the prevailing white supremacist narrative—in exactly the way it confirmed the ISIS narrative when CVE targeted Arab/Muslim-Americans.
The authoritarian streak in the American political psyche—which I attribute to Federalists like Hamilton, and to their modern successors who populate and cheer on our gargantuan National Security State—has repeatedly led to efforts to silence speech and ideas deemed by the majority to be at best objectionable, and at worst a threat to the prevailing political and economic order. From the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Anarchist Exclusion Act to the McCarran Act and beyond, attempts to suppress unpopular speech or ideas have been fought in the streets, in legislatures, and in the courts. And it is that last institution, in the form of the United States Supreme Court, that has made it clear that no matter how much you or I may detest a David Duke or a Richard Spencer or any of their adherents, their right to speak their mind—no matter how hateful or repellant their words or ideas may be—is foundational to our republican form of government.
As Justice Douglass noted in his concurrence to the Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio:
One’s beliefs have long been thought to be sanctuaries which government could not invade. Barenblatt is one example of the ease with which that sanctuary can be violated. The lines drawn by the Court between the criminal act of being an “active” Communist and the innocent act of being a nominal or inactive Communist mark the difference only between deep and abiding belief and casual or uncertain belief. But I think, that all matters of belief are beyond the reach of subpoenas or the probings of investigators. That is why the invasions of privacy made by investigating committees were notoriously unconstitutional. That is the deep-seated fault in the infamous loyalty-security hearings which, since 1947 when President Truman launched them, have processed 20,000,000 men and women. Those hearings were primarily concerned with one’s thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and convictions. They were the most blatant violations of the First Amendment we have ever known.
James Fields crossed the line from a hateful belief to a criminal act—murder—and that is why he will face a jury of his peers for his monstrous conduct, and deservedly so.
So long as America holds to the standard set by the Bill of Rights, the chance to maintain a society that values open debate over even the most repellant of ideas remains. Indeed, forcing the David Dukes and the Richard Spencers of the world to defend their bigoted, fact-free philosophy is the best way to ensure they are discredited and have no chance of ever gaining any power to implement them. This should be the main lesson of Charlottesville, and the main reason why federal CVE programs in any form should be a thing of the past.