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The Courageous Center Must Hold

Report on extremist violence shows why it's time for a post-partisan psychology.

This article was co-written with John Farmer Jr., former Attorney General of New Jersey. Farmer served as Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission and is the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics where he also leads the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience. Farmer and Paresky are both among the authors of the second NCRI report cited.

Nineteen years ago, when the North Tower of the World Trade Center was smoldering, many assumed it was hit by a small plane that had lost its bearings. Not until we saw the second plane hit did the world understand what was happening. Psychologically, this is unsurprising. What is unimaginable, we are unable to see.

UpstateNYer/Creative Commons
Source: UpstateNYer/Creative Commons

Three years later, among the security failures cited in the report delivered by the 9/11 Commission was a “problem of imagination.” It was crucial, the report found, “to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”

In the intervening years, local and federal law enforcement have adapted well, foiling dozens if not hundreds of terrorist plots and preventing another major terrorist attack on our soil. But today, we face another crisis of imagination: domestic violent extremism.

Just as the 9/11 hijackers turned off transponders in order to make the hijacked aircraft invisible to air traffic controllers, so do domestic insurgents conceal their coded signals within the noise of memes, protests, and righteous civil unrest. Just as the 9/11 hijackers hid in plain sight, so do violent domestic extremists. And just as the 9/11 terrorists used the instrumentalities of freedom recursively in order to disfigure and destroy it, so do domestic extremists.

In February, the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) published a report detailing how, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches, it was possible to detect the rapid spread across social media networks of an apocalyptic, anarcho-libertarian militia. Calling themselves the “Boogaloo,” (for the movie sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo), its members self-organized across extremist, mainstream, and dark Web communities, distributing propaganda intended to incite a “sequel” to the American Civil War.

The NCRI documented how the Boogaloo strategize, distribute information about illegal firearm modifications, and share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms. Their violent ideology is propagated through both memes and merchandise, and the structure of the network is a hybrid of lone-wolves and cell-like organizations.

Yet the Boogaloo meme is also used as a joke, and not all who employ it subscribe to the apocalyptic ideology. This ambiguity is a key feature of the strategy: Like a plane without a transponder, the use of comical memes and coded language disguises the clandestine planning of violence and destruction. This may make it easier for potential recruits to be seduced into these groups without realizing exactly what they are joining. It also makes it easier for all of us to believe that what we see online isn’t a big deal.

Domestic extremist violence is not confined to right-wing extremist groups. Detailed in a new report, the NCRI used the same mixed computational/open-source investigation approaches that it deployed to uncover threats of libertarian anarchist violence in an effort to determine the nature of anarcho-socialist extremist activity.

What the NCRI discovered is that these extremist networks seem to use many of the key tactical structures documented in libertarian-anarchist extremism, and which can be found in Jihadi extremism: Utopian narratives, the use of memes and coded language, members cloistering in fringe and private online forums, and organized militias which operate as hybrids, with both lone-wolf and cell-like strategies.

NCRI report, used with permission
Source: NCRI report, used with permission

Preliminary findings reveal that throughout the summer, these distributed socialist anarchist networks, although less established than libertarian anarchist networks, adapted and innovated the tactics and strategies of the Boogaloo. For example, with over 20,000 Twitter followers and just under 20,000 on Instagram, the Portland Youth Liberation Front (YLF), which describes itself as a “decentralized network of autonomous youth collectives dedicated to direct action towards total liberation,” leverages these platforms to offer tactical advice beyond Portland during rallies that have often ended in violent confrontation with law enforcement.

On its social media feed, YLF assigns roles that include “peaceful protesters,” “range soldiers” (who “throw water bottles, umbrellas and trash” in order to obstruct law enforcement), “fire made” (who “come prepared to set fire to barricades and throw flammable projectiles”), and “light made” (who “use laser pointers to obstruct surveillance cameras, drones, and police visors”).

Mainstream media has tended to assume these incidents of arson, vandalism, and violence are aberrations that arise spontaneously within otherwise peaceful protests. Given the ways in which violent extremists of both poles manipulate the narrative of peaceful protests in order to ride on their coattails, it is understandable that both the media and public miss the underlying tactical pattern. But in so doing, they minimize the seriousness of this effort and the deleterious impact of this violence on the legitimate protest movement.

NCRI report, used with permission
Source: NCRI report, used with permission

“This is NOT the Black Lives Matter Movement,” wrote Portland protester Kali Ladd.

“This is chaos,” Reverend E.D. Mondaine, the head of the NAACP in Portland, wrote in The Washington Post. “As the demonstrations continue every night in Portland, many people with their own agendas are co-opting and distracting attention from what should be our central concern: the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Until we understand the psychology of these movements, the legitimate expression of our First Amendment rights to assembly and speech will continue to be hijacked by groups like the Boogaloo and the Portland Youth Liberation Front in the service of violent extremism.

Fascism, about which Yale philosopher Jason Stanley has written extensively, relies on an “us” versus “them” narrative. Stanley notes Hannah Arendt's warning that authoritarianism begins when “one political party treats other political parties not as legitimate opposition but as traitors to the country.”

Today, we see this coming from both parties. Capitalizing on our tribal psychology, some want us to believe that that the chaos and violence emanating from “our side” is legitimate while that on “the other side” is not. Even before the pandemic and protests, one study found that 15% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats agreed that the country would be better off if a large number of the other party “just died.” As we approach the election, the more this kind of thinking is used, the more the country is in danger of slipping into chaos.

To center our liberal, pluralist democracy, we need to cultivate a post-partisan coalition from across the entire political spectrum that is willing to listen to the concerns expressed by members of each party; a coalition that will hold the media accountable to the journalistic principles of truthfulness, accuracy, fairness, impartiality, and public accountability; a coalition that will stand as a bulwark against the ultimate extremist agenda: Election failures, violence as a form of political expression, and even civil warfare.

If we reject the psychology of tribalism and authoritarianism, a large majority of the country can unite as a courageous “center” that is able to see people across political divides not as enemies, but as human beings—and fellow citizens committed to perfecting our imperfect union.

Vice President Biden recently said, “We must not become a country at war with ourselves. A country that accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you. A country that vows vengeance toward one another.”

But we are at risk of becoming that country. Without focus, without imagination, and without a large and inclusive center that will hold, we will continue to see harmless pranks instead of Molotov cocktails, spontaneous, organic, and aberrant violent events instead of planned and coordinated extremist violence—accidents in small planes instead of aircraft used as weapons of mass destruction. ♦

Pamela Paresky, PhD, is Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago, Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and the author of the guided journal, A Year of Kindness. Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of any organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky