The problem with the “public health” approach to ideological violence | Feature | Chicago Reader

The problem with the “public health” approach to ideological violence 

The Countering Violent Extremism program is meant to stop terrorism and hate crimes before they happen, but critics say it’s yet another excuse to spy on Muslims.

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click to enlarge The landing page of the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” website, which was rolled out as part of the Countering Violent Extremism program in 2016.
  • The landing page of the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” website, which was rolled out as part of the Countering Violent Extremism program in 2016.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security announced the recipients of $10 million worth of grants through its flagship counterterrorism initiative vaguely monikered "Countering Violent Extremism" (CVE). These were mostly law enforcement and community organizations, including two local groups, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (or ICJIA, a state agency that creates policy and researches ways to make the state justice system more efficient) and Life After Hate (a nonprofit that works to "off-ramp" people from white supremacist and other extremist movements).

CVE, which was first introduced in 2011 and subsequently piloted in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, was billed by the Obama administration as a "softer" approach to combating domestic terrorism than the invasive strategies of its predecessors. The George W. Bush White House had massively expanded surveillance programs, primarily targeting Muslim communities, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Instead of wiretapping people's phones and infiltrating religious organizations, the government under Obama turned to a strategy that would educate people already working in communities—teachers, mental health professionals, religious leaders, etc.—on how to spot signs of "radicalization" in the people around them. The goal was to intervene before someone committed ideologically motivated violence. Essentially, CVE was supposed to be a way to steer people away from crimes before they committed them. It was also promoted as a strategy that didn't involve law enforcement—though its primary proponents and funders were federal law enforcement agencies.

It wasn't long before youth advocates and Arab and Muslim community leaders in the pilot cities began to cry foul. In Minneapolis, CVE programs targeted public schools with large Somali immigrant student populations; youth workers would be brought in to connect with high schoolers outside of class time "to address identity issues and disaffection at school—root causes of radicalization," in the words of one district official. In 2015, dozens of Muslim organizations in Minnesota signed a joint statement condemning CVE as a prejudicial endeavor that yet again unfairly linked Muslims with terrorism. They argued that "it is not the place of government to determine what ideologies or religious opinions are problematic." Community leaders also argued that rather than dissuading youth from joining terrorist groups, CVE would increase youth distrust toward the institutions in their lives. The ACLU came out against CVE too.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration remained committed to CVE, putting out a nationwide call for grant applications through the program in 2016. The grantees announced just days before Donald Trump took office included local governments, law enforcement agencies, universities, nonprofits working with Muslim communities, and groups like Life After Hate, which worked to counter white supremacist "radicalization."

After Trump's inauguration, his DHS appointees—including national security analyst and Breitbart contributor Katharine Gorka, known for her Islamophobic rhetoric—reevaluated the groups who were awarded these funds and rolled out a revised list of grantees in May of 2017. Life After Hate, which was supposed to get $400,000, was taken off the list. The ICJIA, however, remained, with a nearly $200,000 grant. Soon after the announcement, WTTW reported that some of the community organizations ICJIA listed as "partners" on their application never agreed to work with the agency.

The Trump administration's removal of groups that worked with white supremacists has been interpreted as a sign of the administration's overall affinity toward white nationalism. Just last month a cover story in the New York Times Magazine suggested that CVE has the potential to stop white supremacist violence like the kind that happened in Charlottesville last year. But some community activists in Chicago and around the country are more concerned about what happened to the ICJIA grant. They dismiss lamentations about the elimination of CVE grants to fight white supremacists with the argument that the program was always primarily meant to target Muslims and people of color anyway and its theoretical foundations are no more legitimate when aimed at a different target.

Worried that CVE would serve to expand surveillance and law enforcement incursions into Chicagoland's Muslim communities, the nonprofit Arab American Action Network (AAAN) began to file Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies a year ago in the hopes of finding out more about how ICJIA was using the money. After months of what they've described as "stonewalling" by the FBI, DHS, and Department of Justice, they've sued for the records in federal court.

"It's in the interest of our community and the broader general interest [to know] how these quote unquote counterterrorism programs are being run, how they're being administered, how the money is doled out and who has their hands in it all," says Muhammad Sankari of AAAN.

He adds that there are two main reasons why this information matters: because nationally sponsored counterterrorism efforts have a history of disparate negative impact on nonwhite and Muslim communities and because they set a precedent for local law enforcement to expand surveillance of these same groups. "We feel that oftentimes since our community is targeted by counterterrorism policies it can be the canary in the mine in terms of where the government can go next in implementing these kinds of programs," Sankari says.

Even before the 9/11 attacks birthed the Patriot Act, the federal government was already conducting mass surveillance in the Arab American neighborhoods of Bridgeview under the code name "Operation Vulgar Betrayal," recently chronicled in the documentary film The Feeling of Being Watched. And long before that, the feds used COINTELPRO to spy on black and Latino political organizations under the guise of national security concerns. AAAN and other community groups are skeptical that a program connected with law enforcement or the national security apparatus could do anything but undermine community trust, especially among youth.

Experts who've studied CVE have brought up similar concerns and questioned the "radicalization" theories underlying the program. Nicole Nguyen, an assistant professor of education at UIC who studies how homeland security initiatives intersect with public schools, first learned about CVE when she discovered an FBI website for kids called Don't Be a Puppet, which was launched in 2016.

"Across America, there are young people who are embracing various forms of violent extremism, actively communicating with violent extremists, and helping with recruitment," an agency press release stated when the website rolled out. The goal of the site was to use "activities, quizzes, videos, and other materials to teach teens how to recognize violent extremist messaging and become more resistant to self-radicalization and possible recruitment."

Nguyen says there was never any research showing the effectiveness of the website—but it prompted her to study the scientific evidence underpinning CVE. She soon learned that her colleague at UIC, psychiatrist Stevan Weine, is one of the leading authorities on the "public health" approach to understanding violent extremism that gained traction under Obama.

Weine declined to be interviewed on the record, but Nguyen says his work frames violent extremism as a contagious disease that has to be contained through various preventive strategies. The problem with that perspective, she argues, is that it ignores the political and socioeconomic context in which violence actually occurs. "Violence isn't a disease, it doesn't actually spread like a disease," she says. "[It's not] as though I see someone shoot someone and therefore I'm gonna shoot someone else."

Nguyen isn't alone in her analysis. Academics and former federal law enforcement workers at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice have been sounding the alarm about CVE since its inception, drawing attention to the fact that the scientific underpinnings of the "radicalization" theory have been debunked by empirical research and that it's impossible to predict when and why someone becomes violent.

Kristin Sekerci, an Islamophobia researcher with the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, puts it more bluntly: "the theory of radicalization is an Islamophobic, junk science theory." She adds that things the government has described as possible "signs" of radicalization are inherently discriminatory because they single out "things such as increased Islamic religiosity, criticizing U.S. foreign policy, mood swings, and so-called disaffected behaviors—that's ableist prioritizing of what is considered normal psychological behavior." And, Sekerci says, "radicalization" theory discounts politicized organizing as a valid response to oppression by the state or by dominant groups. "It really flattens the roles and reality of state violence and delegitimizes resistance as nothing more than quote unquote grievances."

The Reader reached out to discuss these criticisms and concerns about CVE with Junaid Afeef, the director of ICJIA's Targeted Violence Prevention Program, who was the primary recipient of the CVE grant and has been holding local workshops for mental health professionals and faith-based groups. He directed questions to ICJIA's spokesperson, who didn't return requests for comment. In the past, Afeef has written that protecting civil liberties and preventing ideologically motivated violence is "not a zero sum game." But little information is available about how the people trained in his workshops implement this training in their communities and whether it leads to ongoing communication with representatives of local or federal law enforcement.

Sankari says AAAN and its allies view CVE as "insidious" because "the public health model bottom lined by DHS means a criminalization and mass incarceration model with the lip service of someone saying: 'We need more counselors in schools.'" The reality, he says, is that young people do need more mental health services and spaces to discuss their social discomfort, but if the government was serious about providing that, it wouldn't do it through law enforcement agencies.

Last week, the U.S. Attorney's office filed its response to AAAN's lawsuit, denying the group's accusations of stonewalling. The litigation is likely to drag on for many more months. Sankari says his group's endgame is to use the records he believes they'll ultimately receive to pressure ICJIA to return its CVE grant to the feds (as several grantees already have done since Trump took office). He thinks it's better to discontinue the Targeted Violence Prevention Program in favor of sponsoring work that'll ultimately benefit young people without criminalizing them.

"Where is the scientific evidence that we need more data collection [on youth], that we need more counterterrorism programs?" Sankari asks, "as opposed to what we believe all young people need: more investment in education, more investment in comprehensive health services including mental health services. Let's talk about raising the standard of living of young people before we talk about them allegedly wanting to join violent organizations."

Update: The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority provided the following statement in response to this article: "The Targeted Violence Prevention Program (TVPP) does not target or discriminate against any group of any race, color, national origin, religion, or other immutable characteristics. The community-led program promotes a public health approach to preventing all forms of targeted violence. Targeted violence incidents include school shootings, mass casualty attacks, and domestic and international terrorism. TVPP will support a range of individuals without stigma or labeling. Earlier this year, ICJIA reached out to several civil liberties groups, including Muslim Advocates and the ACLU of Illinois, for feedback and input on new programming. The invitation for partnership and collaboration remains open. This new programming remains under development. No trainings have taken place. Opportunities to provide input into the content of these trainings remain open. We remain committed to operating a program that promotes community resilience and makes our communities safer." v

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