Editor’s Note: Courtney La Bau is a current fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and co-head of the Homeland Security & Community Resilience Group. She is a former senior advisor and federal contractor on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Community Partnerships. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. For more on counterterrorism, watch “This Is Life with Lisa Ling” Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.
I have traveled the world trying to stop people from radicalizing, and through those experiences I have seen the best and the worst of humanity. I’ve interviewed numerous terrorists in prison cells, bound by shackles - and sat down to hear the experiences of countless former extremists of all kinds. Most recently, I spoke with a man who was actually convicted of participating in and supporting al-Qaeda plots in Afghanistan and the US.
I have passionately worked to counter radicalization and extremist ideology issues worldwide because the range of threats that our nation faces is very real — from the rise in lone wolf and homegrown attacks to the persistent existence of the ideology behind ISIS.
Yet those aren’t the only security risks that are keeping me up at night. Right now, what concerns me most is the widening polarization in our country, because this is the kind of division that feeds the seeds of hate at the root of every kind of terror attack.
We can all agree that keeping our citizens safe has to be our top priority, and traditional counterterrorism work is critical in preserving national security here and abroad. True counterterrorism efforts identify urgent needs, devise solutions and mobilize resources, and we still need our intelligence and military capabilities to thwart and prevent future tragedies.
But could I be so bold as to offer an additional solution to the rising threat of hate and division in the US? It’s one that works as a complement to traditional counterterrorism and counterextremism work — and it’s one that uses more heart.
What if we took a step back and asked how we can stop someone from going down the road of hate, and get to them before they mobilize to violence? What if we tried to build healthy resilient communities, ones where everyone — regardless of the color of their skin or the house of worship they pray in — feels as if they belong? What if we collectively held the responsibility of curbing hateful rhetoric so that we become a more inclusive and accepting society?
I believe that today we have more ideologies across the entire spectrum of beliefs that promote hate or violence, including white supremacy organizations and domestic terror groups, as well as foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS or Al Qaeda. All of these groups – no matter the ideology – thrive off a lack of social cohesion. This is critical to these nefarious actors’ approach — they need these divisions, and they stoke them to further their cause.
In 2019 alone, we’ve witnessed firsthand what divisiveness and hate can bring, from the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, to a gunman firing upon worshipers in a California synagogue.
There’s the story of Mahud Villalaz, a US citizen who migrated from Peru, who suffered second-degree burns after being confronted and attacked by a man outside a restaurant in Milwaukee. Villalaz said the attacker didn’t like the way he parked his vehicle and called him “illegal” before he threw acid all over his face.
Several days prior, a man in San Diego beat a Syrian refugee teenager simply for speaking in Arabic on a trolley.
This threat to our national security is evolving, and we have to adapt and evolve with it — not by ostracizing or singling out the “other,” but by showing more humanity to those who may look like us, and those who happen to look or believe differently. Our social cohesion is what makes us strong and resilient, and that’s why it’s imperative that we counter this polarized climate with tolerance and acceptance.
The successes that we have seen in countering these extremist narratives, or stopping people from mobilizing to violence, are a result of us all working together. Keeping our communities healthy and safe and away from all forms of extremism is a shared responsibility to which we all must contribute.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a mosque in Los Angeles after the Charlottesville attacks. I listened to stories filled with anxiety, and saw tears fall down the faces of frightened local Muslims. Yet what I also witnessed in the midst of that tragedy was an outpouring of civility, as strangers from all walks of life came together to rally around their communities in the name of peace. That experience cemented the importance of us coming together in an effort to repair our divides, to fight this hatred that is so present and rising in some of our communities.
Collectively fostering an environment where we are inclusive and tolerant to others will not stop every terrorist attack or every mass shooting. But what if we each committed to nonpartisan dialogue, civility and global engagement? What if we took the time to pour out love or affirmation to someone in our world who is deeply longing for it? What if we put a layer of humanity onto our efforts to curb extremism of all kinds?
What if we were able to stop just one?