Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, is faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
It wasn’t long ago that the question of what to call Islamic State-inspired terrorists turned Democrats into verbal gymnasts. The term “radical Islamic terrorists” was shunned by those who feared that it too easily vilified a religion and was too likely to alienate our Muslim allies in the fight against global terrorism. In the Barack Obama years, we were often compelled to use words such as “violent extremism” instead, though the very vagueness of the phrase risked muting the necessary actions needed to counter the threat from those using violence in the name of Islam. It was, from a personal perspective, an exhausting exercise.
As the 2016 election approached, then-candidate Donald Trump weaponized this habit and drove it home. “These are radical Islamic terrorists, and she won’t even mention the word, and nor will President Obama,” he said, referring to Hillary Clinton at a presidential debate in October 2016. “Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name.”
Calling an ideology out for what animates it gives clarity to the public. It allows the public to see the threat as a trend rather than an aberration. And it isn’t as if leaders of Muslim nations don’t know that terrorism is being invoked in their name.
But when it comes to homegrown forms of terrorism, Trump officials not only won’t name the problem; they also will barely talk about it.
It has been several weeks since Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, 49, a neo-Nazi member of the U.S. Coast Guard, was arrested for allegedly planning attacks “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” according to government charging documents. At his home in Silver Spring, investigators found 15 guns and 1,000 rounds of ammunition but cautioned that their investigation was just beginning. Inspired by the Norwegian right-wing extremist and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Hasson had, federal agents said, compiled his own hit list of Democratic leaders and media figures. A key piece of evidence against Hasson: He would allegedly log on to his work computer and search previous mass murders.
But apart from statements by the prosecutors, both the Justice Department and armed services have been exceptionally quiet about Hasson and the problem he represents. Trump, in response to a question, merely stated, “I think it’s a shame.”
For a president who found a way to both-sides a neo-Nazi rally, the hypocrisy is not surprising. But by failing to name Hasson’s white supremacist ideology, the military risks missing dangerous subcultures in its force structure and then finding ways to remove them.
And there is a trend. A Military Times poll in 2017 found that about 22 percent of service members have seen evidence of “white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces.” For nonwhite service members, the figure exceeded 50 percent. Respondents noted racist and anti-Semitic language in casual conversations, tattoos aligned with white power groups, Confederate flag displays and swastika graffiti as evidence of hate-filled ideology.
Meanwhile, the military has reported to Congress that only 18 members, out of 1.3 million serving each year, have been discharged or disciplined for racist activity since 2013.
These figures suggest that the uniformed military services view this problem in terms of actionable cases, not as a systemic ideology to be identified and discarded, root and stem.
If the gap between having hate-filled or racist views and engaging in conduct worthy of a discharge or discipline remains large, these polling numbers are not reassuring. The military — an institution that has often led the way on America’s path toward inclusion — needs to address the racism in its midst and the forces that can lead to radicalization. Those who hate cannot be permitted to use the skills they learn — weaponry, discipline, secrecy — while in uniform or after as veterans.
The Hasson saga should lead the services to look harder for warning signs during a soldier’s recruitment and service. Federal officials reported Hasson had been an extremist for years and allegedly fed his hatred at work: He contacted other like-minded souls from his office computer. How widespread is this problem? The Pentagon needs to find out more than it knows.
And it can start by giving the problem a name: the alt-right in uniform. White nationalism in uniform. Military racist extremism. Call it something. Just don’t ignore it.
“To solve a problem,” as Trump said, “you have to be able to state what the problem is.” Exactly.