This is an extended version of the article by Chuck Fager, former Quaker House Director, printed in our Fall 2021 newsletter, HomeFront.
It was easy to be skeptical about the pledges last winter by the newly minted Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, III, that he would make a serious effort to counter extremism in the military.
Such pledges had been heard before, particularly after violent incidents like mass shootings, of which the military has had too many. But these incidents, many particularly horrific, were scattered, public memories were short, and responses soon dissipated.
But Austin has surprised the doubters. Perhaps this reflects his own experience–in December 1995, as a mid-grade officer at Ft. Bragg, he had to deal with a trio of skinhead Neo-Nazi paratroopers who waylaid and shot dead a black couple, unarmed strangers, walking down a nighttime street in Fayetteville. They did it to qualify for a special gang-type spiderweb elbow tattoo.
The case stunned the city and exposed a nest of extremists around Ft. Bragg.
The Quaker House Director then was Sandy Sweitzer, who had been trained in community coalition-building and conflict resolution. She stepped up and conducted numerous workshops and community meetings, which were recognized by city leaders as being valuable in helping traumatized citizens cope with the murders’ long aftermath.
Twenty-five Decembers later, in 2020, Austin was a retired four-star general, who was named Secretary of Defense. He hadn’t been confirmed when a mob attacked the Capitol Building on January 6. Among the aftershocks of the insurrection, he had to face the fact that around 20 per cent of the several hundred arrested during and after it were in or had served in the military, and several had long connections to Ft. Bragg.
Austin hasn’t forgotten the 1995 Fayetteville murders. “We woke up one day,” he said at his confirmation hearing, “and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for. But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to — but we learned from that.”
They learned slowly. But after January 6, with police officers dead, and even former members of the elite Special Forces arrested as domestic terrorists, the learning curve sharpened. Add to that the cold-eyed scrutiny of Congressional heavyweights who had been chased down their own hallways. Austin seemed to realize recycled platitudes would not be enough.
Some, including this writer, were dubious about the ritual of a service-wide round of stand-downs devoted to speeches and seminars. Such reviews take on various things, drunk driving, suicide, and the like; they pass and it’s soon back to the usual routines.
Now it appears that Austin may really mean business. This shows in three ways.
The first is that he is actually preparing to spend DoD money on it: the current DoD budget request includes $31 million for domestic terror prevention activities.
Second, and perhaps even more important, or at least long overdue, Austin has convened a new Countering Extremism Working Group, and its first task is to write up a clear, actionable definition of extremism. That will be used to update a vague current DoD instruction that allows for membership in known extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan or Proud Boys, as long as one isn’t an “active participant” in its programs.
Wait a minute. What’s the difference between an “active participant:” and, say, a passive one? Where is the line to be drawn?
The Pentagon doesn’t know. Shootings and bombings are easy calls. (So are attempted coups; well, for some.) But, say, advocating segregation, and reading about bombing and shooting? Or going to a KKK rally where nothing gets burned but a wooden cross? All that is hateful, but it’s also mostly covered by that pesky holdover, the First Amendment and its talk of freedom of association, speech, press, and assembly. Austin’s working group is charged to sort that out, so commanders can be accurately guided.
How will this new “guidance” be enforced? That’s the third part of the program, and the answer should be obvious: the Pentagon will spy on the troops, and everybody they deal with.
There are plenty of pre-electronic models for this kind of pervasive security operation, like the ubiquitous Stasi in East Germany.
But that’s old hat, and awfully labor intensive. Today, there are quieter, more efficient, touch-free electronic methods. You know: Facebook already does it, to billions of us, every day. Google does too, plus Amazon, Instagram, Russia, and many other social media and dark web outfits, typically invisible to most of us. And did I mention cell phones?
The DoD understands this. And they already have a name for their new approach. An October 5 headline on the defenseone.com news site is admirably concise:
Pentagon Begins “Continuous Vetting” of All Troops for Insider Threats, Extremism; Social Media May Come Next
Automatic alerts will flag records or activities of concern among all Defense Department personnel.
In fact, there’s no “may” about the imminent arrival of “continuous vetting,” aka saturation social media monitoring. In the Pentagon’s realm; it’s almost certainly already underway. And nowadays the drudgery of sorting out the really dangerous ones (shooters, bombers, insurrectionists, whistleblowers) from the merely bigoted chatterers and dreamers can now be completely automated.
“Continuous vetting.” Some malcontents might here be reminded of that old complainer, George Orwell, and his bogeyman “Big Brother.” But that’s so very Cold War. Today, we have a much gentler, quieter figure, who might well be called “Uncle Algorithm.”
Or better yet, just “Uncle Al.”
Thanks, Secretary Austin. I’m already feeling safer. Aren’t you?
Hey, Uncle Al—what could possibly go wrong?
* * * * *
Ten Years Ago–In 2011, Quaker House organized a conference to note the continuing, dangerous growth of the Military Industrial Complex, as named by President Eisenhower in his prophetic 1961 Farewell Address. In 2021, it’s now been 60 years, and the trend has continued.
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