Alice LoCicero Ph.D.

Paradigm Shift


Well-meaning psychologists may find themselves doing harm.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have an approach to what they call “partnering” with communities that purports to help prevent youth from engaging in terrorism, and they want psychologists and other mental health professionals to help implement it. This approach is currently implemented only with Muslim communities, in spite of the long history of well-documented violent extremism on the part of non-Muslims. The actual partnering between paid law enforcement and various paid service providers runs the risk of failing, and even harming, unpaid members of the partner community. Programs using this approach—under the international umbrella of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), and similar to the “Prevent” program in the UK, often have catchy names featuring appealing words like “resilience,” and “engagement.” But it is misguided, scientifically invalid, and potentially—and in some cases actually--harmful. It is misguided in that it targets Muslims, adding to the false perception that one should be wary of anyone who is Muslim. It is also misguided because it fails to put a firewall between service provision and law enforcement, leaving providers in an ethical quandary around confidentiality. It is scientifically invalid, because social science has never been able to accurately predict, in advance, which youth will become violent, and the so-called scientific results asserting that they are doing that do not hold up to scrutiny. The idea of prediction is false both in the erroneous assertion that it is scientifically valid, and false in asserting that the programs rely on real science. In fact, the programs rely on unsubstantiated hypotheses. Researchers, in their scientific papers, consistently acknowledge that no one really knows how to predict who will engage in violence due to an extremist perspective.  Nevertheless, the set of unsubstantiated hypotheses are used, and they are supplemented with surveillance and encouragement of citizens to become informants. And that increases the potential for harm—it runs a high risk of tearing communities apart—the opposite of what the programs claim to be doing.

Communities across the country are affected by CVE. One of those communities of high interest to DHS and FBI programs purporting to prevent violent extremism, for example, is Minneapolis. That seems to be a result of the large number of Muslim refugees there. But prominent members of the Muslim community in Minneapolis express concern about the harm of such programs. Multiple mainstream, well-respected human rights, professional, Arab-American and Muslim American organizations (such as the ACLU, The Brennan Center, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Muslim Justice League) believe that CVE programs present a danger to the communities targeted. Even the American Federation of Teachers has expressed concern about some aspects of the program.

I suppose it sounds too conspiratorial to suggest that tearing up communities may not matter much to the government sponsors of CVE programs, or worse still, that they do so intentionally. But if it were true, it would certainly not be the first time that federal law enforcement did such things. You can find out more about the infamous Co-Intelpro program here Or you can view the documentary film called “1971,” or read the book called The Burglary. The latter two recount how a few anti-war activists managed to bring the old FBI program to the attention of the public. I say “old program” but many wonder whether, despite disclaimers, mandated oversight, and proclamations of awareness that it was wrong, CoIntelpro lives on, in other forms.

Given all this information, one might conclude that it should be obvious to psychologists, by now, that these programs are not the best way to help communities. However, it seems unlikely that psychologists recruited for these jobs will be encouraged to scrutinize the hypotheses that are made to appear to be scientific. And training programs are unlikely to encourage young psychologists to be skeptical, or even cautious, about participating in government-sponsored programs. Add to that the fact that these programs are falsely advertised as being partnerships that make communities more resilient. Busy psychologists, barely making enough money to support their families and pay off student loans while striving for some semblance of work-life balance, have little available bandwidth to critically evaluate programs that sound good on the surface, pay decently, are sponsored by the US government, and purport to be helping the community while helping the country.

The leaves well-meaning psychologists vulnerable to making the same mistakes that multiple other providers have made over many years—doing harm while meaning to do good. For in an everyday view, CVE includes very nice, caring professionals—including education/medical/mental health people, collaborating with very nice and concerned local and federal officials, and they are doing their best at helping parents guide their kids--it sounds great. And I have no doubt that a lot of the professionals already engaged are nice, caring, well-meaning, competent people. And if the guidance they provided were equally available to all parents, at the request of parents, in all communities, and were funded solely by humanitarian and health organizations, without the collaboration of law enforcement, it might actually help contribute to family development.

Unfortunately, the programs, as currently implemented, tend to vilify normal adolescent developmental frameworks. For example, youth who are newly capable of abstract, counter-factual reasoning, and are exploring a critical approach to the government, or who have legitimate grievances about racism and stereotyping may be seen, through the lens of these programs, as posing a possible future threat. This is exactly the wrong approach. Youth from Muslim communities—like those from all communities-- who are exploring a critical approach to government should be supported in thinking through their concerns and in finding effective, nonviolent, active approaches to advocating for change, just as the high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, critical of governmental inaction on matters related to school shootings, have been supported.

So when you zoom out from clinical interventions to a larger frame, what you see is another example—in a long line of examples-- of somewhat privileged professionals acting as intermediaries, enforcing government driven agendas. At best these agendas are misguided. In this larger frame, CVE may be seen as another example of young men and women of color being assumed to  have a high likelihood of becoming violent--as in need of being controlled, rather than supported, when they think critically. Bluntly, it looks like another example of government-driven, racially discriminatory programs.  

Though it is a bit beyond the scope of this blog, if you were to zoom out again, including history in the analysis, CVE is another example of a colonial approach to what is defined as a vulnerable population. Sadly, we providers, continue to be told to provide so-called "help" to people who are perfectly capable of solving things on their own terms, if only we lived up to our American values of justice, fairness, and equal opportunity. If only our leaders pursued a human rights agenda, rather than a divide and conquer agenda. Those who prefer a divide and conquer agenda have learned that if that agenda is implemented indirectly by caring, professionals, naïve to the agenda itself, it will be better received by the public, especially by the vocal liberal communities who might otherwise object.