Violent extremism, as a problem for U.S. policy, needs to be viewed in much different terms than it has hitherto. Terrorism, the component of violent extremism that traditionally has most alarmed Americans, also needs a major rethink. The need for rethinking is greater than after past incidents that, traumatic as they were, shaped what has been the dominant American way of thinking about violent extremism.
A major facet of that thinking over the past two decades has been that a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 was a watershed moment that marked a great change in threats to U.S. national security. But what suddenly changed twenty years ago was popular attitudes—because of the spectacular nature and casualty toll of that one attack—not the threat itself. The nature of the threat had already been recognized by those responsible for countering it. The U.S. government was actively combating that threat before 9/11. Most of the tools needed to combat it after 9/11 were the same ones used before.
Very recently there has been recognition that the violent extremist threats the United States faces today come less from foreign jihadists of the sort who perpetrated 9/11 than from domestic white supremacists and others on the far right, with responsible authorities such as the Department of Homeland Security adjusting their focus accordingly. That recognition has been retarded by political motivations and still extends to only a portion of the American population. Such recognition constitutes a part, but only a part, of the necessary rethinking.
At least as big a part is to realize that violent extremism today is a matter not only of small groups but of large numbers of people. In twenty-first-century America, support for political violence has become a mass phenomenon. As a measure of that phenomenon, a recent poll conducted by the Survey Center on American Life found that 29 percent of Americans, including 39 percent of Republicans, support using violence “if elected leaders will not protect America.” Thirty-six percent of Americans, and a majority (56 percent) of Republicans, agree with the statement, “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was an act of terrorism. Whether or not it gets routinely described as such, it meets the criteria in most official definitions of terrorism, which involve politically motivated violence against noncombatants, conducted by someone other than the military forces of a state. Although investigators have uncovered some preparatory organization by groups involved in the incident, the attack was primarily a mass phenomenon. It was fed by a nationally propagated lie—still held by many Americans—about supposed fraud in an election and had the extremist objective of overturning the result of the election.
Counterterrorism, as we have come to know it, and as it has focused primarily on foreign terrorist organizations, does have some useful things to say about extremist beliefs in a larger population. Even where terrorist acts are committed by a few people in a small group, the incidence of terrorism is affected by the extent of relevant beliefs, including extremist beliefs, in a general population from which a terrorist group recruits its members and to which the group looks for sympathy and support. Counterterrorist specialists recognize this dynamic, and the subset of their field dealing with mass beliefs relevant to terrorism usually comes under the label “countering violent extremism” or CVE.
But the more that violent extremism becomes a mass phenomenon rather than a matter of small groups, the less relevant and useful are the traditional counterterrorist tools. Penetration of a clandestine terrorist cell through creative intelligence or police work has usually been thought of as the apotheosis of counterterrorism, but any such thought is mistaken in an era of mass extremism.
CVE or other aspects of counterterrorism that deal with large rather than small numbers of people change character greatly when the extremism being targeted is domestic rather than foreign. For one thing, the technique most used overseas when aimed at an enemy with large rather than small numbers of people is military force—such as the force used to reduce the ministate in Iraq and Syria established by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Similar use of military force clearly is not applicable domestically, short of the horror of a new civil war.
Another difference concerns the particular manifestations of political extremism that worry us or ought to worry us. With foreign extremists, most Americans’ concern is narrowly focused on the physical harm that terrorists might do to Americans. As a matter of popular sentiment and also often of U.S. policy, the other damage wrought by political extremism abroad, including authoritarianism and other political pathologies, usually gets little attention as long as no Americans get killed or injured in the process.
But with mass political extremism at home, we ought to have a much broader concern. The biggest threatened harm is not the deaths or injuries to individual Americans from terrorism—which by most comparative measures is small—but instead the severe injury and threat of death to America’s democratic political system. The mob at the Capitol easily could have killed even more people than it did, and that would have been tragic for the individuals involved and their families. But what would have been even more tragic for the republic is if they had succeeded in killing American democracy by overturning a free election.
Yet another difference between extremism abroad and extremism at home is that the latter is enmeshed in the nation’s politics, and that above all makes it hard to counter. This unfortunate fact is reflected in the party-specific results in the aforementioned poll about attitudes toward the use of violence. It is reflected in how much of the Republican Party is still in the grip of Trumpism, which at the end of Trump’s term became a movement with the extremist objective of overturning democracy.
As the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security chip away at domestic extremism by disrupting clandestine cells and arresting their members, we should not delude ourselves that this deals with the greater part of the problem. Countering mass extremism in the United States is an enormous task. It entails nothing less than the construction, or reconstruction, of a democratic political culture. It entails public education to help dispel mass belief in politically damaging lies. It entails somehow dealing with those politicians and mass media that propagate the lies. It entails a host of social and economic conditions that affect susceptibility to extremist ideas and movements. (Consider, for example, that a majority of those facing criminal charges for their participation in the assault on the Capitol have histories of financial problems.) For these and other reasons, countering mass extremism is one of the preeminent challenges of our time.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.