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Moving Toward a Society with NO HATE - A Proposal for Advancing U.S. Domestic CVE

Moving Toward a Society with NO HATE - A Proposal for Advancing U.S. Domestic CVE

November 30, 2015Alejandro Beutel

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

Since 2011, the Obama administration has been making a push to implement the concept of Countering Violent Extremism, or “CVE,” both at home and abroad. CVE as a concept, set of policies, and spectrum of practices has been and continues to rapidly evolve, especially within a domestic U.S. context.

At the same time, domestic U.S. CVE has come under substantial criticism, especially from civil liberties and some community advocacy groups. Largely as a result of these stated concerns, other local community stakeholders appear hesitant to participate in CVE initiatives. This potentially threatens the viability of community-based partnerships that underwrite the implementation of CVE. To be sustainable in the long run, researchers and policymakers need to re-think CVE as a concept and as a set of policies and practices.     


The Skeptics’ Arguments

In the process of re-thinking CVE we first need to understand skeptics’ arguments and their importance. Critics tend to raise at least one of five criticisms against CVE in the United States.

First, current government policies focus on Muslim violent extremists—and therefore Muslim communities—to the exclusion of other threats, such as violent far-right actors. In addition to creating a security “blind-spot,” skeptics argue this unfair focus on Muslims stigmatizes and alienates the very partners needed to make CVE work.

Second, many communities do not see violent extremism as the most immediate threat to their safety compared to other issues. While not dismissing the importance of CVE per se, faced with limited resources and a variety of other safety concerns, local leaders give greater weight to other issues, such as mitigating anti-Muslim hate crimes and attacks against mosques or preventing recruitment into street gangs.

Third, skeptics contend CVE programs threaten fundamental civil rights and civil liberties. They say, “The overarching problem with [government-led] CVE programs is their reliance on simplistic theories of terrorist radicalization that have long been discredited by empirical studies.” These theories are especially problematic because they attempt to “predict” violent behavior. However because the evidence behind the theories (and CVE programs) is thin, this leads to monitoring lawful ideas, instead of policing violence and other unlawful behaviors.

Fourth, CVE allegedly creates another “school-to-prison pipeline,” for young Muslim students similar to ones that disproportionately impact Black and Latino students (such as “zero tolerance” policies that punish relatively minor disciplinary infractions with suspensions, expulsions, and criminal arrests.) CVE programs extended into schools are asking teachers to identify students believed to be at risk of violent extremism based on negative factors identified in certain radicalization models. Critics point to the arrest of Texas student Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested for bringing an alarm clock to school because his teachers thought it was a bomb.

Finally, some critics contend that CVE programs simply do not work. Lacking an empirical base that clearly demonstrates its effectiveness, at best, CVE is an ineffective concept that wastes taxpayer money and adds little to no public safety value.


Identifying Similarities and Parallels with “Targeted Violence”

While countering violent extremism is worth fighting for, both as a concept and a set of policies and practices, these arguments point to the need for some adjustments. These adjustments should start at the conceptual level, which will in turn impact how the issue is framed and operationalized as a broad set of policies and practices.

As a concept, violent extremism is often viewed as a unique form of violence. While true that violent extremism has its uniqueness, overemphasizing the differences and failing to identify the commonalties with other forms of violence is missing the forest for the trees.

There are some researchers who are taking a comparative approach and as a result are identifying potentially useful insights. Perhaps the most promising comparisons are those between lone actor terrorism and targeted violence—non-ideologically motivated attacks like rampage mass shootings at workplaces, schools/universities, and public spaces. This promising approach is based on a growing body of evidence that has identified strong parallels, in terms of pathway directions into violence.

One important similarity between both types of violence is “bystander” challenges—individuals who are aware of an attacker’s violent intentions or plans, but fail to notify the appropriate authorities. A 2002 study of school shooters found 81 percent of the incidents had at least one other person who had some knowledge of the attacker’s plans. Fifty-nine percent of the cases identified situations where more than one person had such prior knowledge. Ninety-three percent of these bystanders were peers of the attacker, such as friends, schoolmates, or siblings.

2013 study on lone actor terrorists—across multiple ideologies—contained findings that closely parallel those of school shooters. Among 79 percent of the individuals analyzed, the study found other people who were aware of the perpetrator’s adherence to an extremist ideology. “In 64 percent of cases, family and friends were aware of the individual’s intent to engage in a terrorism-related activity because the offender verbally told them. These findings suggest therefore that friends and family can play important roles in the early detection and prevention of plots. In 58 percent of cases, other individuals possessed specific information about the lone actor’s research, planning and/or preparation prior to the event itself.” (emphasis added)

Identifying parallels between non-ideologically motivated targeted violence and ideologically-motivated targeted violence (violent extremism) should not be equated with sameness. One of the key features distinguishing violent extremism from other forms of targeted violence is the presence of ideology as a motivating factor for an individual’s pathway into violence. However research into antecedent behaviors and personal issues that precipitated and facilitated pathways into lone actor terrorism suggest ideology is one factor among a larger set of issues identified in a perpetrator’s life.

Currently one of the key policies and practices for stopping cases of non-ideologically motivated targeted violence is the use of threat assessment teams. Despite the ominous-sounding name, threat assessment teams seek to use punitive measures, including arrest, only as a last resort.

Composed of a multidisciplinary team—such as legal counsel, mental health professionals, law enforcement officers, institution administrators (e.g. human resources), and social workers—they constitute a comprehensive attempt to de-escalate a person’s movement toward violence. In this approach, team members often opt to use alternative approaches such as counseling (if applicable or possible) to defuse and resolve a potentially dangerous situation.

Recent research on U.S. domestic CVE practices seems to be suggesting a similar direction. Findings from a June 2015 START working group comprised of 25 CVE experts argued for reshaping CVE “beyond a focus on radicalization to violence to a focus on a spectrum of targeted violence inclusive of radicalization to violence, but also other violent threats such as gang violence, workplace violence, hate crimes, and domestic violence.” 

In sum, if the pathway directions into violence for school shooters and violent extremists are similar, and the challenges to preventing it are similar, effective responses might also be similar.


A Way Forward – NO HATE

Given the parallels between CVE and non-ideologically motivated targeted violence, policies and practices should also reflect those commonalities. I propose an alternative policy framework that acknowledges and operationalizes these similarities—National Outreach for Hazards And Threat Education (NO HATE). Instead of abandoning the CVE umbrella term altogether, as some critics have called for, NO HATE houses CVE-related initiatives under a broader set of policy and program initiatives that simultaneously address other forms of targeted violence.

Making this proposed policy and programming shift from CVE to NO HATE has several potential advantages, many of which directly address the above-mentioned substantive concerns of CVE critics.

First, expanding the issue-area focus takes a broader “multiple hazards” approach that addresses the various safety needs of communities in their local contexts while simultaneously tackling violent extremism. Doing so potentially mitigates many of the resource dilemmas facing local communities. This approach would be especially beneficial in regions where violent extremism is exceedingly rare.

According to START research, U.S. domestic and homegrown violent extremism tracked since 1970 tends to predominately cluster within 10 counties. By contrast a cursory analysis of FBI data suggests that acts of non-ideological targeted violence, such as mass shooters, appear to occur throughout the United States without any particular geographic clustering.

Rather than having to choose between preventing gang violence or ideologically-motivated violence, under a new framework like NO HATE, communities can potentially learn and use tools that can be used for more than one particular purpose.

Second, framing the issue as targeted violence serves to broaden the context under which public safety partnerships with local communities can emerge beyond attention to one type of violence that, in practice, concentrates on one segment of the population. Moreover it moves away from the use of fear-inducing “terrorism” discourse that some research suggests is ineffective at increasing vigilance and resilience against violence. Instead, such framing often serves increases prejudice against perceived out-groups (in this case, Muslims).

Instead of feeling singled out from ineffective and counterproductive messaging, American Muslims, in partnership with other faith, race and civic communities, have a narrative around which they can unite with their fellow citizens to increase public safety.

Third, while the empirical science behind radicalization continues to evolve—START’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) is a significant step forward in this regard—it is true that there is currently no operationally useful research that can accurately predict violence.

While discussing prediction may seem like a straw man argument, some skeptics explicitly assert CVE initiatives seek to “predict” violence. To be clear, none of the three CVE “pilot cities”—Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis—explicitly say they seek to predict violence, as articulated in their official framework documents. (In fact, the Boston framework document states, “Researchers across the globe have made it clear that the path to violent extremism is not linear and there are no valid or reliable indicators to ‘predict’ who is more likely to engage in violent extremism.”) (emphasis added)

Regardless of the factual validity behind the claim, the perception that CVE initiatives are attempting prediction is one more reason why analyzing violent extremism through the broader lens of targeted violence is a promising approach. Threat assessment team responses to threats of targeted violence are explicitly preventive by their nature, not predictive. The difference goes beyond semantics.

Violence prediction and violence prevention can be understood using a medical analogy: Doctors cannot say when a person is about to have a heart attack (prediction); they can confidently identify when someone is at serious risk for one and what steps can be taken to lower that risk (preventive).

Predictive efforts concentrate on determining the accuracy of whether or not an individual will commit an act of violence. Preventive measures focus on 1) developing a rapid and context-specific analysis of a potential threat posed by an individual and 2) connecting the person of concern to protective resources that will mitigate his/her context-specific issues moving him/her along a pathway into violent action.

Emphasizing prevention over prediction is not only a more effective approach, at least for now, it also reduces costs to civil liberties. Rather than continuing to be heavily reliant on controversial surveillance and arrest tools, threat assessment teams (or some similar multidisciplinary process) represent a potentially viable alternative practice for various stakeholders seeking to prevent acts of violence.

Threat assessment teams, such the “Virginia model,” have empirically demonstrated their effectiveness in preventing acts of targeted violence against schools and reduced schools’ use of suspensions and expulsions. Using these empirically evaluated and effective tools would be a step toward mitigating the pipeline, not building it.

Behind the pipeline argument is a larger concern about racial disparities in national criminal justice outcomes and methods of violence prevention. Embracing a broader strategy like NO HATE may be important step in the direction of addressing this concern.

For years, research has shown that perpetrators of targeted violence, like school shootings are largely (though not entirely) White males. The national response to this violence was an effective and holistic model of prevention that used arrests and other punitive measures as a last sort.

By contrast, violent extremism in the United States—rightly or wrongly—has been often perceived as predominantly committed by Muslim males. These individuals do not receive counseling and other assistance; they end up in prison.

Rephrased differently, one may ask, “Why, when faced with similar personal crises, do young White men get put into counseling, but young Black and “Brown” Muslim men get put into handcuffs?”

Embracing a broader approach to preventing ideologically-motivated violence would be an important step toward answering this question in a fair, just, and effective manner.



CVE as a concept and set of policies and practices is worthy of public support. However skeptics also make some important observations and raise important concerns about its potential limitations. Embracing CVE within a larger concept of targeted violence places it on a stronger conceptual foundation that can address skeptics’ concerns over civil liberties, empirical support, effectiveness, and racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes.