DC News & Views

Resilient communities best defense against acts of violence

On Monday, a pipe bomb was detonated at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. Fortunately, no one was killed in the attack. Whenever an attack like this happens, the country reflects on what can be done to prevent violence. Are there tangible steps that communities, civil society, and elected officials can take to protect the public?

Photo by Jason Kuffer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Violating civil liberties in the name of national security

The inconvenient truth is that, with any kind of violence, there is nothing we can do to completely prevent these attacks from happening -- as much as we would like to. It is also important to note that violating civil liberties in the name of national security makes us all less safe. For decades, the federal government has marginalized communities, infringed on civil liberties, and treated American Muslims as suspects through entrapment, broad surveillance, and heavy-handed counterterrorism tactics. Civil liberties do not need to be sacrificed for the sake of national security.

As Benjamin Wittes, Lawfare Blog Editor-in-Chief, notes, we must “distinguish between tools and measures that are genuinely necessary to the security of the country and actions that are ideologically- or bias-driven impositions on the lives of innocent people. To the extent we advocate policies that burden human lives, we accrue a special responsibility to speak up about policies that impose such burdens too broadly, without meaningful security benefit, or without adequate checks. To the extent we defend policies that people may believe gratuitously target Muslims, we have a particularly special duty to speak up against policies that actually do.”

The federal government and law enforcement response to public perceptions of national security fears drives policymakers to a “do whatever it takes” mentality to fight violent extremism -- ultimately serving public perceptions, not creating effective policies.

Ignoring all forms of violent extremism makes us less safe

Trump rebranded the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program as a “terrorism prevention” program and shifted its focus exclusively on “radical Islam” -- ignoring violent threats posed by white supremacists, right wing extremists, and other violent ideologies. One of the harms in focusing only on one form of violent extremism is the mismanagement of resources. This paradigm creates a “needle in the haystack” approach to countering violent extremism -- an approach that is both ineffective and counterproductive.

This shift is evident in President Trump’s Muslim travel ban and recent anti-Muslim tweets by a far-right British hate group. According to outgoing National Counterterrorism Center Director Nick Rasmussen, the administration’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies make us less safe and more vulnerable to threats posed by ignored violent ideologies like white supremacists.

The Trump administration claims that it wants to build trust between communities and law enforcement, when in fact, it is targeting communities through law enforcement There are numerous of examples of this including co-opting local law enforcement to target immigrant communities, labeling racial justice activists as “black extremists,” and using federal dollars to stigmatize American Muslims.

Shifting from government-led approaches to community-led programs

Even under the Obama administration, CVE was a top-down federally governed criminal lens approach. MPAC advocated to change the CVE program from a criminal lens to a public health one and pressured the government to abolish controversial programs like the FBI’s Shared Responsibility Committees that resorted to deputizing community members for law enforcement intelligence gathering. It is and has been MPAC’s position that government-led programs are ineffective at best and harmful at worst.

Rather than focusing solely on violence prevention as the goal, MPAC’s community-led Safe Space Initiative fosters community resilience through public education, access to counseling, and behavioral health services.

Another example is Life After Hate, an organization led by former members of the American far-right that creates community resilience through education, counseling, and social services to individuals seeking to leave a life of hate and violence motivated by intolerance and racism.

Community-led programs like Safe Spaces and Life After Hate promote public health, public safety, and civic engagement. Our community, faith, public health, and youth leaders should be entrusted with the responsibility of caring for and uplifting community members, but this requires additional resources, training and support to meet individuals’ needs that go beyond the spiritual realm.

Local communities, not the government or law enforcement, should take the lead in implementing community resilience programs. Pandering to public perceptions of national security fears fractures our country and hinder our ability to create solutions to achieve our common goal of public safety and community resilience.

Founded in 1988, the Muslim Public Affairs Council improves public understanding and policies that impact American Muslims by engaging our government, media, and communities. Our vision is that America is enriched by the vital contributions of American Muslims.

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