This weekend, we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom as they solemnly vowed they would through their US Military Oath of Enlistment:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
In November of last year, OODA Network Member Brian Jenkins spoke to the OODA Network Member membership on the threat posed by domestic political extremism. – which was followed by an OODA Network Q&A Session on Domestic Political Extremism and Violence.
We pull the string on these previous internal discussions here, exploring the role of recent convictions and sentencing as a general deterrent to extremism.
We also catch up with the latest research and findings from the Rand Corp., including an article by Brian Jenkins that warns against the inadvertent creation of martyrs.
General Deterrence Theory and Sentencing
General Deterrence Theory is a criminological concept that suggests that the threat of punishment can deter individuals from engaging in criminal behavior. The theory posits that potential offenders weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime before making a decision. By imposing significant and certain punishments, society aims to create a deterrent effect that discourages individuals from engaging in criminal acts.
According to General Deterrence Theory, when potential offenders observe others being punished for their criminal actions, they are more likely to refrain from committing similar acts out of fear of facing the same consequences. The goal is to create a perception of swift and severe punishment, thereby influencing individuals to choose legal behavior.
Sentencing, on the other hand, refers to the process of imposing penalties or punishments on individuals who have been convicted of committing crimes. When an individual is found guilty in a court of law, the judge determines an appropriate sentence based on various factors such as the severity of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, the presence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances, and the principles of justice.
The purpose of sentencing is multifaceted. It aims to achieve objectives such as retribution, deterrence (both general and specific), rehabilitation, and incapacitation. Retribution seeks to punish offenders in proportion to the harm they have caused, providing a sense of justice for victims and society. Specific deterrence focuses on preventing the convicted individual from reoffending through the individual’s personal experience of punishment.
Sentencing also plays a role in rehabilitation, aiming to reform and reintegrate offenders into society. It can involve various programs, therapies, or educational opportunities to address underlying issues that may have contributed to criminal behavior. Additionally, in cases where public safety is a concern, sentencing may include measures of incapacitation, such as imprisonment, to physically separate the offender from society.
The specific approach to sentencing may vary across jurisdictions and legal systems, reflecting different philosophies and goals. Some systems prioritize rehabilitation and emphasize community-based alternatives to incarceration, while others prioritize punishment and incapacitation. The goal is to find a balance between protecting society, addressing the needs of victims, and providing opportunities for offenders to reform and reintegrate.
Effective Against Domestic Political Extremism
General Deterrence Theory and sentencing can have limited effectiveness in addressing domestic political extremism. While deterrence measures and sentencing can play a role in discouraging criminal behavior, they may not be sufficient to address the complex nature of political extremism. Here are a few reasons why:
Motivations and Beliefs: Domestic political extremism often stems from deeply held ideological beliefs, grievances, or radicalization processes. Individuals who engage in extremist activities may perceive themselves as fighting for a cause or pursuing a perceived injustice. The deterrence value of punishment may be outweighed by their ideological commitment, making it less effective in dissuading their actions.
Group Dynamics and Radicalization: Political extremists often operate within group dynamics and networks that reinforce and validate their beliefs. These social factors can create a sense of solidarity, identity, and shared purpose, making the deterrence impact of individual punishment less influential. Sentencing one individual may not address the underlying group dynamics that contribute to extremism.
Ideological Attraction and Symbolism: Political extremists are often drawn to symbolic acts of violence or disruption aimed at garnering attention or provoking social or political change. The perceived impact of their actions on their cause or ideology may overshadow the deterrent effect of potential punishment.
Counterproductive Effects: Heavy-handed or overly punitive responses to political extremism may inadvertently fuel grievances and radicalization. Excessive punishment can reinforce a sense of persecution or martyrdom among extremists, potentially leading to further radicalization or acts of violence.
Effectively addressing domestic political extremism requires a comprehensive approach that goes beyond deterrence and sentencing. Strategies should include proactive measures such as community engagement, early intervention, education, social support, and addressing underlying socio-economic and political factors that contribute to radicalization. Dialogue, deradicalization programs, and initiatives aimed at promoting inclusivity, tolerance, and understanding can also play a vital role in mitigating the appeal and impact of extremist ideologies.
Recent Rand Corp. Research and Insights on Domestic Political Extremism
Video Source: https://www.rand.org
The his Rand blog post – “Capitol Rioters Face FBI Arrests and Prosecution. How Not to Make Them Martyrs in the Process” – Brian Jenkins discusses the challenge of effectively addressing the legal proceedings and public perception surrounding the individuals involved in the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021.
Jenkins emphasizes the importance of avoiding actions that could inadvertently elevate the rioters to martyr-like status, potentially fueling further extremism – while acknowledging that the criminal prosecution of those involved in the Capitol riot is necessary to uphold the rule of law and ensure accountability. He also highlights the significance of fair and transparent legal processes that demonstrate that the actions of the rioters were unlawful and unacceptable, with the following qualifiers:
- Avoiding actions or narratives that could unintentionally elevate the status of the rioters in the eyes of extremist groups or sympathizers.
- Avoiding excessive publicity that may serve to amplify their messages or ideologies.
- Focusing on providing factual information about the legal consequences of their actions and highlighting the strength and resilience of democratic institutions; and
- The importance of addressing the underlying issues and grievances that contributed to the Capitol riot; and
- A call for efforts to promote civic education, engage in dialogue, and address societal divisions to prevent future acts of extremism.
Overall, Jenkins advocates for a balanced approach that:
- Ensures justice is served through legal processes while minimizing the risk of inadvertently glorifying or empowering the Capitol rioters.
- Focuses on accountability, transparency, and addressing underlying issues; the aim is to prevent these individuals from becoming martyrs and to discourage further acts of extremism.
Jenkins on the Role of Plea Bargains
“Plea bargains dispose of cases without lengthy trials or uncertainty about what juries might decide. Plea bargains also can elicit cooperation to advance ongoing investigations.”
“The Justice Department is also engaged in plea talks with January 6 rioters. Plea bargains irritate segments of the public, which often views them as letting defendants off too easily. Prosecutors know, however, that plea bargains serve useful purposes. They dispose of cases without lengthy trials or uncertainty about what juries might decide. Plea bargains also can elicit cooperation to advance ongoing investigations.
Just as important, plea deals erode the cohesion of the group. The hard-core extremists—those who planned to assault the Capitol or are responsible for violent assaults on police—are likely to be prosecuted to the fullest. But many Capitol invaders were ordinary people who incorrectly believed they were preventing an election from being stolen. Leniency for them can sever bonds between the misguided and truly dangerous.
Even among the hard core, plea deals can have devastating effect on their groups. The same paranoia that drives violence makes violent groups prone to suspicion and schisms. Prosecutors who can turn members on each other often shatter the group, as happened after a decade long terrorist campaign in the 1970s by Italy’s Red Brigades.
Outside the courtroom, extremist groups may still claim martyrdom, and that those who take plea deals were never members at all. While prosecutors are constrained as to what they can say during trial, the federal government needs to present the public with convincing support of their cases in readily understandable, apolitical terms.
Avoiding the creation of political martyrs does not imply appeasement; there is no compromising with ideologies of hate. But the justice system may have to be practical. Ultimately, President Joe Biden, who wants to defeat “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism” and yet also unify the nation, may choose to take the strongest steps to defuse tensions by strategically employing his power of pardon and commutation. It would be ironic, but those who rejected his legitimacy as president may end up depending upon his presidential authority for leniency.” (1)
“There needs to be a better understanding of why people become attracted to extremist activities in the first place.”
Posard and Riley discuss the urgent need for a comprehensive and innovative approach to preventing extremism in the United States. Drawing on the concept of the “moonshot,” which refers to ambitious and transformative goals, the authors highlight the gravity of the domestic extremism problem and the necessity of bold, coordinated efforts to address it.
Arguing that current approaches to countering extremism have been insufficient – primarily focusing on law enforcement and reactive measures – this analysis emphasizes the need for a proactive and preventive strategy that addresses the root causes of extremism, such as social and economic disparities, political polarization, and ideological radicalization.
The proposed “moonshot” approach entails a concerted effort across multiple sectors, including government, academia, technology companies, civil society, and communities. It suggests leveraging innovative technologies, data analysis, and interdisciplinary research to better understand the drivers of extremism and develop effective prevention strategies.
“There is both a need to depoliticize the issue of extremism and for bold investments in policies that would prevent it from metastasizing over the long term.”
The importance of early intervention and community engagement in identifying and supporting individuals who may be vulnerable to radicalization figures prominently in this commentary – with a call for a comprehensive education and outreach campaign that promotes tolerance, critical thinking, media literacy, and constructive dialogue. The authors also stress the need to address the online ecosystem that facilitates the spread of extremist ideologies. It suggests collaboration with technology companies to develop tools and policies that can detect and counter extremist content while respecting privacy and freedom of speech.
The proposed moonshot initiative emphasizes the importance of evaluating and iterating prevention efforts based on evidence and outcomes. It calls for ongoing research and analysis to inform the development and refinement of effective strategies.
In the end, the authors articulate a clear argument for a transformative and ambitious approach, comparable to the moonshot mission, to prevent extremism in the United States, making a compelling argument for interdisciplinary collaboration, innovative technologies, community engagement, and proactive prevention strategies to address the complex challenges ahead. (2)
“Violent Extremism in America: Pathways to Deradicalization” discusses the challenge of addressing and preventing domestic political extremism in the United States. It highlights the importance of understanding the complex pathways that lead individuals towards extremism and explores potential strategies for deradicalization, including:
- That political extremism often arises from a combination of personal, social, and ideological factors.
- Traditional approaches, such as law enforcement and incarceration, may not be sufficient in countering extremism. Instead, a multifaceted approach that focuses on prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation is necessary.
- The importance of early intervention to identify individuals who are susceptible to radicalization and provide them with support and resources before they become involved in extremist activities.
- The role of social networks and online platforms in radicalization processes, highlighting the need for effective counter-messaging and online interventions.
- Leveraging the expertise of former extremists, community leaders, and mental health professionals in designing deradicalization programs; and
- The need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving government agencies, community organizations, and various stakeholders to address the complex issue of domestic political extremism and promote deradicalization efforts. (3)
Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and Their Families on Radicalization and Deradicalization
“Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and Their Families on Radicalization and Deradicalization” focuses on understanding the experiences of individuals who were formerly involved in violent extremism in the United States. The report presents insights gathered through interviews with former extremists and their families, shedding light on the processes of radicalization and deradicalization in an effort to illiminate the factors that contributed to the radicalization of these individuals, highlighting the significance of:
- Personal vulnerabilities
- Ideological influences
- Social networks, and
- Online platforms.
The Rand researchers also explore how individuals were initially drawn towards extremist beliefs and the role that specific events or experiences played in reinforcing their radicalization – examining the process of deradicalization, including the factors that led these individuals to disengage from extremist ideologies and behaviors – such as:
- The role of personal transformations
- Critical thinking
- Interactions with others; and
- Access to alternative narratives in facilitating the deradicalization process.
The interviews also provide valuable insights into the experiences and perspectives of family members of former extremists. They discuss the challenges faced by families in recognizing and addressing radicalization, as well as the support they provided during the deradicalization process.
While providing a nuanced understanding of the pathways towards violent extremism in the United States and the potential strategies for deradicalization, the researchers especially highlight the importance of:
- Targeted interventions
- Community engagement
- Access to supportive resources in preventing and countering extremism; and
- The role of of firsthand accounts from former extremists and their families in the development of effective prevention and deradicalization programs.
- Negative life events are part of, but not the sole cause of, radicalization.
- Abuse or trauma, difficult family situations, bullying, and other negative life events often have psychological and behavioral consequences and are sometimes implicated in radicalization pathways. However, they are never the sole or most direct cause of radicalization.
- Those with mental health challenges often had difficulty accessing care.
- Although not every respondent spoke of mental health problems, those who did mentioned lack of treatment options that were accessible or affordable.
- The enduring appeal of extremist groups seems to lie in attending to fundamental human needs.
- Needs for social bonds, love and acceptance, and having a life purpose go unmet for some people, leaving them prone to become involved with extremist views and groups.
- Radical ideology and involvement in extremist activities have addictive properties for many.
- Physical violence and engaging in extremist activity online have addictive properties that appear linked to the experience of joint risk and struggle against a common enemy.
- Recruitment to radical groups deliberately leverages psychological vulnerabilities.
- Radical groups develop ways to bolster ideological commitment through:
- Restriction of access to information or circumstances that challenge ideological constructs; and
- Social and cognitive strategies for reinforcing in-group bias and hatred toward people outside the group.
- Extremist groups nurture a self-reinforcing social milieu. This includes shared purpose, camaraderie, friendship, and joint activities, all of which can involve both risk and emotional rewards.
- Both radicalization and deradicalization are linked to “being in the right place at the right time.”
- An individual’s experience of a dramatic, challenging life event and of highly meaningful social interactions (both negative and positive) play fundamental roles in both processes.
- Heavy-handed attempts by formal institutions to deradicalize individuals often fail.
- Such measures taken by intelligence and law enforcement agencies are understandable because of the need to protect the public but can sometimes deepen ongoing radicalization processes and push potentially salvageable cases to more-extreme behaviors and involvement.
- Stigmatization of groups seems mostly to push at-risk individuals further down the extremist path
- Punitive measures, banned speech, and indignant public discourse can backfire and increase the drive for radicalization.
- Media literacy, access to diverse sources of information, and positive experiences with diversity appear critical for deradicalization.
- In certain cases, structured and opportunistic interventions that involve exposure to people outside the group who exhibit kindness and generosity have had positive effects. (4)
- Community organizations should expand opportunities for mental health care.
- Community organizations should provide opportunities for expanding diversity exposure.
- Community organizations should help at-risk parents and families to recognize and react to signs of extremist radicalization and engagement.
- Community organizations should present deradicalization messages at the right time and place.
- Community organizations should consider the trade-offs between punitive and “soft” law enforcement interventions.
- Community organizations should organize community-based educational opportunities.
- Researchers should explore the feasibility of addiction-based programs to address hate and radicalization.
- Researchers should better identify geographic and demographic hot spots for radicalization.
- Researchers should explore and develop educational and outreach efforts to help recognize and address signs of radicalization.
- Researchers should explore and design social network approaches to deradicalization.
- Researchers should continue to explore and design interventions that foster deliberate exposure to “optimal contact” with groups targeted by hatred.
- Researchers should conduct research on institutional and societal (environmental) influences of extremism.
- Researchers should design and assess programs that create safe, mentored spaces for individuals to freely express themselves and challenge one another’s beliefs.
- Researchers should use both data science and ethnographic research to understand current processes of online radicalization to extreme groups. (4)
DHS National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin: Summary of Terrorism Threat to the United States (May 2023- November 2023)