Executive Branch

President Trump, Quebec and the Dismantling of CVE

Quinta Jurecic
Monday, February 6, 2017, 1:00 AM

Since President Donald Trump signed his executive order restricting entry into the United States by immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, the White House has pointed to three main examples of supposed security threats to justify its unjustifiable directive.

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Since President Donald Trump signed his executive order restricting entry into the United States by immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, the White House has pointed to three main examples of supposed security threats to justify its unjustifiable directive. Most recently, the President himself pointed by tweet to an attempted knife attack outside the Louvre museum in Paris—in which one person (other than the attacker himself) was lightly injured—as a reason why the United States must “GET SMART.”

The previous night, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway cited the “Bowling Green Massacre” carried out by Iraqi refugees—an excellent example disadvantaged only by the fact that such a massacre never occurred.

But the first, and oddest, of the three ostensible illustrations of the need for “extreme vetting” came when White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred to the recent mass shooting in Quebec as an example of why the Trump administration has taken a hard line on security measures, saying, "It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant and why the president is taking steps to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to our nation’s safety and security."

There’s just one catch: The Quebec shooting, in which six people died, was not carried out by a Muslim or by anyone from any of the seven countries named in Trump’s travel ban. In fact, the only Muslims involved in the attack were the victims: the shooter specifically targeted worshippers attending Sunday night prayers inside a mosque. And the shooter himself was a young French-Canadian man who was, according to a friend, “enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement” that had led him to become a fan of both National Front leader Marine Le Pen and, in a particularly notable yet all-too-predictable twist, President Donald Trump.

In other words, the White House’s examples of supposed militant Islamist terror justifying the travel ban include one attack in which only minor injuries occurred, one attack that did not occur at all, and one attack in which Muslims were not the attackers but the victims. What’s more, while the President took the time to compose an angry tweet in response to the incident at the Louvre and Spicer has used the Quebec attack to justify excluding many Muslims from the United States, the President has yet to personally issue a public response to the news from Quebec of the type that is utterly routine when terrorist attacks take place: Apart from Spicer’s comments at the press briefing, which noted that Trump “offered his condolences and thoughts and prayers” to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and pledged support to Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies, neither the White House nor the President in his individual capacity has denounced the attack or publicly expressed sympathy with the victims and their families.

This conspicuous silence is all the more notable given the recent news that the Trump administration plans to “revamp and rename” the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program into something called “Countering Islamic Extremism” or perhaps “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” and intentionally exclude right-wing extremists from the program’s scope. As J.M. Berger wrote last week in the Washington Post, CVE as it now stands has given scant attention to violent ideologies outside militant Islamism, but explicitly abandoning this supposedly equal-opportunity approach would be “a powerful symbolic statement.”

In Berger’s words:

Since Trump began his campaign for president, white nationalism has enjoyed media exposure and mainstream political support at levels not seen since the 1960s. There was never any reason to hope a Trump presidency would be different or better than his dog-whistling campaign, and his first two weeks in office have made that painfully clear.

Rebranding the government’s work as “Countering Islamic Extremism” instead of “Countering Violent Extremism” will not empower white nationalism by ending some specific and effective program, but rather by shouting to the world that America’s political leadership will not oppose white nationalism—even in the flimsiest and most ephemeral way imaginable.

A week before the presidential election, Benjamin Wittes and I voiced concerns about the potential of the Trump movement to provide both a set of ideational preconditions from which an individual might move toward far-right extremism, and a social network for people drawn toward that extremism. We argued that we should understand Trumpism as an illiberal movement located along a spectrum with violent white supremacy, in the same way that we often understand illiberal Muslim electoral movements as on a spectrum with violent jihadism. We worried that the new visibility given to fringe right-wing movements by the Trump campaign could speed along the radicalization process for many people who might otherwise have led peaceful lives, whatever quiet fears they might have held in their heart of hearts about their Syrian neighbors.

As we wrote then:

There’s a simple measure for whether our basic theory here is, in a general sense, right: If it is, we will see a significant spike in white supremacist violence over the next few years…. If our collective understanding of the process of violent radicalization is correct, the result will be blood.

Two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, it is still too early to say whether we’ve seen the spike in violence that Ben and I predicted. But though neither the Southern Poverty Law Center nor the Anti-Defamation League has yet released data on post-election violence, both organizations report a spike in hate crimes in the days and weeks immediately after the presidential election, to the point where the SPLC received as many reports of hate crimes in the week following the election as the organization usually does over the course of five or six months. Over the course of January, 48 Jewish centers across the United States received bomb threats, leading 14 to be evacuated. In recent days, police began investigations of swastikas scrawled in public places in Chicago, Houston, and New York City:

In the words of Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s national director, “Something is happening that was not happening before.”

It is in this context that we should read reports that the Quebec shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, was a fan of Donald Trump, who cannot be troubled to denounce what he did.

According to acquaintances, Bissonnette became enamored with far-right politics after a Quebec speech given by Marine Le Pen in March 2016. He reportedly began engaging in what The Globe and Mail politely refers to as “vocal online activism” and what a former classmate describe as internet trolling, which grew more and more aggressive over the course of the last year. The moderator of a pro-refugee Facebook page Bissonnette often posted to depicted him as having made “frequent extreme comments ... denigrating refugees and feminism.” He also attached himself to Donald Trump, to the point where his classmate said that “he could have been a perfect Republican” (in a characterization that is very unfair to decent Republicans).

This is not to say that there is anything inherently violent about support for Donald Trump, or that more than a tiny fraction of Trump supporters are either drawn to violence or will commit violent acts. But it is to note the connection between Bissonnette’s attack on a mosque and his enthusiasm for a political leader who has voiced a profound hostility to Muslims, has given key positions to aides who have built careers on vilifying Islam, and one of whose first major acts as President was to sign an executive order that takes steps toward effectuating his campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States. It is important that we do not blame Trump individually for violence that is not his responsibility, but we also should not minimize the presence of far-right violence in the Trumpist world or the connection between that violence and Trump’s rhetoric—just as we don’t minimize the continuum from lawful political activism and electoral politics to violent extremism that exists in the world of Sunni Islamism.

The academic literature on radicalization provides an excellent framework for thinking about cases such as Bissonnette’s—and CVE attempts to put that framework into practice by dissuading those drawn to extremist ideologies or violent actions and helping those moving away from such ideologies reintegrate into society. The irony, of course, is that Trump’s proposed reworking of CVE would symbolically exclude people like Bissonnette in the service of focusing the government’s energy on “radical Islamic extremism.”

Immediately after Trump’s victory in the presidential election, the leap in hate crimes led to widespread calls for the new President-elect to speak out against the violence perpetrated by his supporters. Days later, Trump finally weighed in on “60 Minutes,” telling his followers to “stop it.” The comment was far from even close to sufficient, but it was something.

In contrast, it is impossible not to note the silence now. There is plenty to be unsettled about regarding the administration’s planned changes to CVE, but the absence of even token words of care regarding the Quebec attack raises a grave concern that this administration has no intention of taking seriously violence perpetrated by its most extreme supporters.

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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