BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The activities of violent extremists threaten citizens and society itself, so presumably it behooves governments to step in with education and law enforcement to reduce those threats. The Last Defense bill, in fact, earmarks money to study anti extremist strategies, but is that really what we want? Putting aside the privacy and propaganda implications of targeting any citizen over ideology, history shows that even when the threat is monstrous, government programs spectacularly fail. Stig Jarle Hansen is a professor and leader of the International Relations Program at the Norwegian University of Life Science. He's also coeditor of the Routledge Handbook of Deradicalization and Disengagement. Hansen says that government attempts at deradicalization go back to the prison rehabilitation movement of the late 19th century, which yielded little success. In fact, whether those terms are applied or demobilization or deprogramming, history has yielded few successes. His Exhibit A is post-World War II Germany, where the allies employed various methods to de-nazify captured military officers.
MAN 1 What about the ideas in their heads?
MAN 2 They have to be demobilized and got back to work. But let one man or woman who still believes in the Nazi regime or the destiny of the German people to rule the world, take office, and you have the beginnings of another war. [END CLIP]
STIG JARLE HANSEN The fact is that maybe all three major allies did a bad job in doing this, that they were not really successful in doing mass deradicalization. It seems like there was a generational effect that really eradicated these types of ideology from large segments of the German population. So it was rather a generation that changed, but there are several lessons that could be learned. The German officers that were committed to national socialists, they organized themselves within the prison camps clandestinely. We haven't only seen this in the denazification programs. We saw it with ETA in Spain and we saw it in Abu Ghraib.
BOB GARFIELD The shamed children and grandchildren of the officers exposed to the Nuremberg trials and the country's massive truth and reconciliation project would go on to repudiate their forbears’ ideology. But faced with denazification, the Nazi officers themselves doubled down and history has repeated itself. Hansen mentioned Abu Ghraib because post-Saddam Iraq is his exhibit B.
NEWS REPORT The U.S. military has confirmed the leader of ISIS was held as a U.S. prisoner at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. [END CLIP]
STIG JARLE HANSEN Abu Ghraib was really a big failure. It's a kind of roster of who is who inside the Islamic State. A lot of the Islamic State leaders, they went to Abu Ghraib and they were radicalized rather than deradicalized. So although there was deradicalization efforts, they failed utterly.
BOB GARFIELD In other words, backlash. Michael German is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, Liberty and National Security Program and author of Disrupt, Discredit and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy. In his 16-year career at the FBI, he spent 12 years undercover, including far right extremist groups. But when the subject turns to de radicalization, he gets the willies.
MICHAEL GERMAN So, you know, my training as a law enforcement officer, I want to see the evidence. I know that there isn't significant empirical evidence to show that a radicalization process actually exists. So I question what the value of a deradicalization process is. If it's just a couple of scientists in a room bantering bad ideas back and forth, that's not my problem. My problem is they're bringing those bad ideas into the criminal justice system. Understanding the history of the way governments use the radicalization theory over time to engage in the Palmer raids.
BOB GARFIELD You're referring to the Palmer raids in 1919, 1920 during the first Red Scare in which Woodrow Wilson's government just rounded up the usual leftist suspects.
MICHAEL GERMAN Targeting immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe for deportation. Under this radicalization theory that the people who committed violence weren't the problem, the people who spread ideas are the more dangerous ones that need to be suppressed. And then, of course, during the civil rights era, justifying the suppression of the civil rights movement through spying and a host of dirty tricks that J. Edgar Hoover had come up with because the concern was that they were radical and they would change our system in a way that the FBI disagreed with. It made me worry after 9/11 when this lexicon came back into use by the FBI and now unfortunately actually drives counterterrorism programming, even though we know that it's a false and easily abused methodology.
BOB GARFIELD As I understand it, you're not just concerned with the politicization of law enforcement to root out threats who aren't necessarily threats. And you're not just concerned about the civil liberties of suddenly surveilling people for what are essentially thought crimes. You question the whole premise of abhorrence not because you aren't disgusted by Nazi ideology, but because you believe that white nationalism and racism are so rooted in the history of the country that what these people are supporting is just basically the preservation of the status quo.
MICHAEL GERMAN Absolutely. And that's really a big part of the problem with this discussion of deradicalization around white supremacy and far right militancy, because no matter how big your program is, as long as there are news channels like Fox News and the One America Network promoting these ideas and its bias, you're never going to cure it. As long as there are politicians that gain power by promoting these ideas, even if it's just through a dog whistle, which has been part of our politics for decades. Donald Trump's only difference was he put away the dog whistle and brought out a bullhorn to express his racist ideas. So we have to understand how our society itself is shaped by the history of our founding as a white supremacist project. Right. So it's not as if this is some extreme belief system, a bunch of crazy people on the margins invented for the most part. They're actually delving into the history of the United States of America in a way most Americans never do. And taking what were foundational documents explaining why it was these European colonists believe that God gave them the authority to dominate other cultures and commit genocide in doing so. White supremacists today has actually a better understanding of our history than than the history most of us learn in school.
BOB GARFIELD OK, stipulated nonetheless, there's a bunch of crazies out there. Some of them losers, some of them supposedly, you know, intellectuals, but nonetheless who are sowing mayhem.
MICHAEL GERMAN Some of them law enforcement officers, some of them military officials, some of them members of state legislatures, some of them members of Congress. It permeates our society, as you stipulated. So here's the issue. What is the role of law enforcement? The role of law enforcement is to enforce the law where there is serious crime, particularly violent crime. Obviously, law enforcement can take care of that. But imagining that there is this pool of people who have not committed a crime, who you can put some magic pattern over and determine which among them is going to commit the crime is not based on any empirical research. It's folly. And what has happened is because we're in this preventative mode, the FBI is looking out on the horizon, at who's threatening? And they see the Muslim American community as threatening, so they engage in lots of very expensive and resource intensive surveillance and suppression of Muslim communities. On the other hand, they can't tell you how many people white supremacists or far right militants killed last year. Because they don't even bother to collect the data of crimes that these groups actually engaged in. So it's not just that they're not investigating these crimes, in many cases, they're not even bothering to account for them.
BOB GARFIELD Is this a structural bias issue within the FBI? Is it a political issue that is attached most particularly to the Trump administration and before that, the George W. Bush administration? Is it just a question of meager resources and administrators looking for opportunities to push the problem to the states?
MICHAEL GERMAN So I joined the FBI in 1988, graduated just when William Sessions was sworn in. And like his predecessors after Hoover, he identified the lack of diversity in the FBI as a major problem, but actually tried to do something about it and started recruiting a more diverse workforce. And the numbers weren't changing fast enough, but they were changing every year, getting better. That stopped in 2001. And in fact, they've been getting worse since then in many ways. So this resurrection of the radicalization theory and the infusion of overtly anti-Muslim materials into counterterrorism training caused that to where in an enterprise where we're not just concerned about the security of the nation, but the security of FBI investigations. This very white, very male organization started looking at its colleagues who weren't white or weren't male as potential security threats and applicants who weren't white and weren't male as potential security threats. So taking a chance on hiring those people was no longer acceptable, and that's why we saw the stark lack of progress since 2001.
BOB GARFIELD Should the government of a democratic society fight fascism on all fronts and using law enforcement resources? Can it and how?
MICHAEL GERMAN I think it's government's responsibility to protect the security of its people from threats from outside and criminal threats from within and to provide for their economic and social well-being, including with easy access to health care and easy access to a voting booth so they can have their opinions influence government policy. And that creates a healthy environment that no bad ideas find very effective purchase, whether it's fascism or anything else. Whenever government tries to come in and say what ideas are allowed to be expressed and what ideas are not allowed to be expressed, that doesn't end up, number one, killing those ideas. It turns out it's very hard to kill an idea, but number two, it then just gives justification for those who would argue that their rights have been violated and therefore they are justified in using violence to overthrow the oppressor. And it consequently makes things worse, not better. In the post 9/11 environment, we engaged in this war on terrorism and these foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now elsewhere in many places across the world. And that militancy breeds fascism, right? Not just that these military officials are being fed this Islamophobic narrative to justify the violence that we're inflicting around the world, but just that you're building a culture that glorifies the use of violence as a solution to political problems. And that infects the entire society.
BOB GARFIELD Mike, thank you.
MICHAEL GERMAN Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Mike German is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice is Liberty and National Security Program and the author of Disrupt, Discredit and Divide How the New FBI Damages Democracy.
If Mike German is right, we're on a fool's errand, something like cutting calories by picking the sprinkles off of an ice cream cone. Grateful, we should be, for interventions that succeed in pulling the scales from hateful eyes, but as so often is the case, the disease and its cure lie deeper. The extremists are repugnant and dangerous, but they're in many ways just dead enders fighting to preserve the power they believe is their birthright. They're vulnerable not just to the rewards of identity, purpose and cool military gear, but to a narrative of entitlement that rings true because it always has been true. They think the Libs and the deep state are taking something away from them, and they're right. They think the government has failed them and they're right. Yes, we need to lead twisted minds toward truth, justice and redemption, but also physician heal thyself. The grim fact is you can't just throw a switch on extremism, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how deeply felt. The process is rife with complications, inconsistencies and irreconcilable conundrum. Let's return to Brad Galloway, the ex neo-Nazi, now devoting his life to did not defying others. Early in his 13-year embrace of violent white supremacy, he was severely beaten in a gang brawl and found himself being treated by an Orthodox Jewish E.R. doctor.
BRAD GALLOWAY He saved my life that night. He didn't note that I was wearing a swastika shirt. However, I know that probably destroyed his mental well-being. And, you know, it's tough to manage thinking back to that, because at that time, I didn't deserve any of that.
BOB GARFIELD Have you since tried to track him down, apologize. Explain yourself. Thank him.
BRAD GALLOWAY You know, I've thought about it. I've had colleagues say, you know, you should try to do that. But I wonder what me coming back into that person's life would do to them. Right. I don't know if they want to talk to that guy that they saved many years ago.
BOB GARFIELD I have been doing this show for 20 years, and I can't recall a time where I've ever encouraged a guest to do anything, but I would, with all my heart, encourage you to try to find this doctor or his family if he's no longer alive, and just tell them that you came out OK and that you're grateful. No swastikas anymore.
BRAD GALLOWAY Yeah, that's you know, I think about it often.
BOB GARFIELD Now he says he worries about retraumatizing a kind soul, but for years he was simply paralyzed with shame. Shame. It can't be messaged, it can't be injected, it must be felt. By Nazi wannabes and by us.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callendar with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our fabulous newsletter, and our show was edited this week by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer. This week was Adriene Lilly.
On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Bob Garfield.
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