Hate and extremism are at all-time highs. As our annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents shows, antisemitic incidents are the highest they have been since we started counting incidents in 1979, and our Murder and Extremism report shows that murders by extremists are also experiencing historical highs. During the COVID social distancing and quarantine period, some of the trends we have been seeing are heightened, such as use of the crisis for extremist propaganda that could radicalize a new generation of extremists.
In a growing number of cases, the actions of extremists constitute federal or state crimes, and we must work with Congress and state legislatures to ensure our laws are adequate – and law enforcement appropriately trained and empowered, but also sensitive to the risk of over-aggressive surveillance and enforcement poses to civil rights and liberties. Both the empowerment and sensitivity to rights are necessary if law enforcement is going to investigate, arrest, and prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes and extremist offenses. Once someone has taken action that constitutes a criminal act, the justice system should be prepared to take action.
But it is always better to an individual from reaching that point. In some cases, an individual going down the path of extremism has not yet committed a crime. Sometimes they are fully radicalized to hate and potentially could become a member of an extremist organization or movement, but other times someone they find credible (such as a family member) can stage an intervention, similar to that of drug prevention. It is not a perfect solution, but families, friends, and former extremists intervening in someone’s life before they fully commit to the path of violence can help off-ramp them back toward becoming less hateful – or at least less likely to be violent.
One organization that works with at-risk individuals is called Parents for Peace. They operate a call center where those who are concerned about someone in their lives can call and be directed to mental health or other counseling services that can hopefully blunt the severity of an at-risk individual’s progress down a dark path.
One pair of parents recently called Parents for Peace because they were concerned their child was developing neo-Nazi sympathies. In this case, the child was bullied by peers who perceived him to be withdrawn, and at times called a Nazi due to his prominent blond hair and blue eyes. Feeling pushed away, he turned to older individuals he met in the community or online who did not mock him – including those who would not have judged him if indeed he were a neo-Nazi, which led him to feel a sense of community and acceptance, albeit in a hateful social cohort.
At the time that this process began, the child was only eleven years old. At that age, one could not say he had carefully considered the ramifications of his actions; yet he did begin to identify with some of the more extreme views of his new “friends.”
His parents reached out to Parents for Peace, who helped him find a therapist and become more engaged in the community once he moved to a new school. This individual is not yet fully recovered from the trauma of the intense bullying he faced, but he has recognized the egregious error in some of the hateful views he had come to espouse. While that does not necessarily mean he will never harbor such hateful feelings again, following this intervention, we can be more confident that he is on a more positive path, and hopefully a less violent one.
During the COVID crisis, calls to Parents for Peace have nearly tripled. They may be in higher demand because of a rise in extremism, kids spending more unsupervised time online, or else because kids are home and more to be noticed by their caregivers – in any case, organizations like this are all the more critical during these frightening times.
ADL is working with legislative and other partners around the country to encourage programming to off-ramp individuals at risk of extremism. Alongside our support for law enforcement responses to criminal behavior, ADL has also worked with the National Governors’ Association and others to encourage public health approaches at the federal, state and local government level to reducing extremism in individuals who can still be encouraged away from hate. In these difficult times, we need all of the tools in our toolbox to address the challenges of growing extremism.