DHS enlists community leaders to fight violent extremism, but experts fear it could further political divide

Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 9:45 AM EST

WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - According to the Department of Homeland Security, political disinformation and racial bias are most often behind violent extremist attacks in the U.S. Now, they’re investing in local leadership to help stop the violence before it begins.

“This really starts at the community level, and we are about empowering communities,” said Robert Silvers, the under secretary for policy at DHS.

From teachers to ministers to coaches, Silvers said local leaders are in the best position to stop violent extremism in their neighborhoods.

The federal government is pouring millions into community programs to teach those leaders how to spot when someone’s views could escalate. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas designated tackling domestic violent extremism as a “National Priority Area” for FEMA grants for the first time. Since 2021, the department has also made information sharing a new priority to keep the public up to date on threats.

Silvers said the goal is not to police beliefs.

“This is about speech or view or false narratives that are encouraging people to act violently and harm others,” he said.

Kara Frederick from the conservative Heritage Foundation said she worries the government doesn’t have a concrete definition of extremist speech. Because of this, she said she fears opposing politics could be viewed as a threat in some community programs.

“They have to consistently apply their policies to American citizens,” Frederick said. “They can’t just target one specific group and let another say whatever they want.”

Behavioral scientist Todd Helmus from the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation is in favor of DHS’s strategy, calling it “the only way to go.” He said politicization of the issue is inevitable due to the focus on right-wing extremists.

“It’s a minefield as to how to address and counter these groups without coming off like you’re countering right wing ideology,” Helmus said.

He said the government will need to tread carefully in election years to keep these methods effective.

DHS, Helmus and Frederick all agreed that tech companies should also play a role in preventing extremism from spreading on their platforms moving forward.

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