After Charlottesville, it’s Time for Action on Extremism

Terrorism came to Charlottesville earlier this month. And if we want to prevent it from happening here and across the country in the future, we must do everything we can to ensure our communities are resilient and have the tools and resources they need to stand up to hate.

I attended the interfaith service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on August 11th and was uplifted by the message of inclusive aspirations for our great country. Unfortunately, the feeling in the air downtown the next day brought me back to my days as a Marine serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. The hatred we saw from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who infiltrated our community was reminiscent of the extremists waging wars against democracy overseas. These radical groups never intended to protest peacefully. Their aim was to intimidate, and they targeted their wrath at all those who do not fit into their twisted vision of America.

That wrath turned deadly when a 20-year-old Ohio man who had travelled here for the rally intentionally rammed his car through a crowd on the downtown mall. In addition to injuring 19 people, he killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a member of our community who believed passionately in the dignity of all Americans.

In the Marines, we had a word for this: Terrorism.

Even in this polarized political era, there is agreement across the political spectrum that we must have zero tolerance for white-supremacist terrorism or any form of terrorism in America. Governor Terry McAuliffe told the white-supremacists and neo-Nazis that invaded Charlottesville, “You pretend that you are patriots, but you are not patriots.” Senator Ted Cruz called for the Department of Justice to open a domestic terrorism investigation.

Unfortunately, words from our leaders are no longer enough. Terrorism came to our community on a Saturday in August, and it will require meaningful action from our leaders to address, understand, and prevent domestic terrorism. There is a simple place they can start.

In 2016, the White House launched the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force. Led by George Selim, an experienced and widely-respected Republican counter-terrorism expert, this body of representatives from federal agencies was to coordinate federal CVE efforts and, most importantly, support new locally-led efforts to prevent violent extremism. The task force rightly recognized that communities - including local law enforcement, mental health professionals, school administrators, parents and other local leaders - not Washington bureaucrats - are best placed to identify early signs of radicalization and to help steer individuals away from violence. The task force’s ultimate goal was to build resilient communities in order to prevent and respond to the threat of radicalization to violence of Americans, whether motivated by white supremacy, Neo-Nazism, Islamist extremism, or any other ideology that preaches hate and intolerance for our fellow Americans.

However, the future of the task force and our government’s collective CVE work is in danger, after the Administration proposed eliminating all funding for such efforts in May.

Our leaders in Washington must take action to reverse this dangerous trend. An extremist is an extremist, and funding should be restored to CVE efforts so that we are supporting groups such as Life After Hate, which was formed by former white-supremacists, and works to de-radicalize members of extremist groups like the ones who showed up on August 12th.

Properly funding and restoring the CVE mission is not a panacea. It will not fix all of the issues that led to the events of August 12th, but it is a step in the right direction. Our leaders’ statements and tweets will ring hollow if they refuse to take concrete steps to help our communities heal and prevent the next tragedy.

That’s why I’m calling on Congress to take action and restore funding for CVE efforts. In the meantime, our leaders like Rep. Tom Garrett need to convene law enforcement, academics, social services organizations, and the private sector to devise a strategy for what we can all be doing to prevent radicalization.

These terrorists seek to divide us. We must stand united and take action to counter the threat they pose to our communities and our democracy.