Terrorism & Extremism

Why Defining ‘Extremism’ Matters to the U.S. Military

Keith S. Gibel
Wednesday, June 30, 2021, 8:01 AM

The current Department of Defense description of extremism prohibits the effects of a problem it does not yet define. A clear definition is needed to address extremism.

Marines with the Maritime Raid Force, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, board a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162, prior to conducting a night raid operation during Realistic Urban Training at Mar(U.S. Marines photo)

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On April 9, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed “immediate actions to counter extremism in the department,” to include a review and update of the Department of Defense’s definition of extremism. U.S. military members can’t fight as a cohesive unit if extremist views prevent different members from working together. But military leaders can’t address extremism without defining it first. “Extremism,” however, has proved difficult to define.

Although governments have found “extremism” challenging to define, its association with violence is a primary reason for government concern. Specifically, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas described “domestic violent extremism as the ‘greatest threat’ to the United States.” And U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the U.S. to lead in combating extremism, in all its forms, noting it is an “international threat” to “universal values” and “social cohesion.”

Current Department of Defense guidance states that military personnel must not “actively advocate ... extremist ... doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal discrimination ... or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights” and that military personnel “must reject active participation” in such extremist organizations as well.

The current description of prohibited “extremist” (and similar) “doctrine, ideology, or causes,” in the context of “handling dissident and protest activities,” does not actually define extremism. It categorizes such types of thought as among those which advance illegal discrimination or violence or otherwise deprive individuals of their civil rights, but it does not explain what causes extremism. Addressing the effects (in some cases violence), but not the causes (such as hate and fear), of extremism leaves leaders without a definition to bring about positive change.

Further, the Pentagon’s description fails to explain what it is about extremism that affects unit cohesion—what enables a team, or military unit, to function effectively. Finally, this description does not prohibit behavior that may hurt people not protected by anti-discrimination law. Thus, the current department description of extremism prohibits the effects of a problem it does not yet define. A clear definition is needed to address extremism.

Defining Extremism for All Seasons

Quassim Cassam, professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, writes that extremism may be understood as a “mindset” that discusses extremism in psychological terms. He considers what extremists have in common—“their preoccupations, attitudes, thinking styles and emotions.” Considering extremism as a mindset enables leaders to better identify and confront it. He describes “[e]xtremism’s preoccupation with purity as one of its key attitudes” and explains that extremists “hate compromise because it detracts from purity.” This aversion to compromise may be described as inflexibility. And another way to describe this extremist attitude is as a desperation in which one’s survival is viewed from an “us against them” perspective.

Cassam also identifies “indifference to any adverse consequences of one’s actions” as a “key extremist attitude.” He explains that indifference to “the practical or emotional damage incurred is the essence of fanaticism” as well, but clarifies that indifference—only when united with a preoccupation with purity—is extremist. Finally, Cassam notes that emotions common to extremists include “anger, resentment, and self-pity.” And while he describes extremist thinking to include paranoia, “prone to both utopian and conspiracy thinking,” such thinking could also manifest itself as blame directed at a certain group for perceived or actual inequalities, such as unequal opportunity to shelter, food, work, health care, education and voting.

Despite Cassam’s invaluable contributions to understanding extremism, he does not define it. Initially, he explains that it is difficult to define extremism because there are aspects of extremism, including violence, that are used to advance just causes. But by combining some key attributes of extremism offered by Cassam, it is possible to devise a workable definition for the military.

U.S. service members swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, which includes equal protection—for all Americans—under the law. Extremism violates a service member’s oath to the Constitution if it is defined as:

An inflexible ideology that instills hate or fear, and advocates, promotes, facilitates or condones violence, to advance its primacy over alternative or competing views.

In other words, if a person can accept violence to further an ideology grounded in hate or fear, that person is adopting an extremist mindset. Defining extremism this way treats all extremist bases—race, color, sex, ethnicity, national origin, religion, identity, appearance, income, age, disability or politics—equally. This definition divorces the term “extremism” from any specific cause or basis of discriminationany ideology could be considered extremism if it contains all of these factors. This definition also shifts the conversation from “What is extremism?” to examining criteria for a certain ideology, such as “Is this an inflexible ideology?” and “Does this ideology instill hate or fear?” Further, this definition captures the concern about the causes of extremism (hate or fear) and the effects of extremism (fomenting, permitting or excusing violence). And it includes aspects of extremism that have eluded identification.

Specifically, an inflexible ideology indicates an unwillingness to compromise, listen to others, or consider other viewpoints, and an indifference to how one’s actions may affect others. This inflexibility, in thought and action, is what causes others to suffer. Moreover, “inflexibility” illuminates why extremist thinking negatively affects social cohesion. And by including “primacy over alternative or competing views”—by instilling hate or fear in its followers—this definition addresses supremist thinking. Also, to the extent that terrorism involves instilling fear by the threat or use of violence, and indifference to the consequences of one’s actions, this extremism definition includes terrorist thinking as well. Finally, this definition answers the question Cassam poses by distinguishing just causes as those not based on hate or fear.

But this extremism definition works only if all parts of the definition apply. For example, an inflexible ideology, by itself, is not extremist. But inflexibility, combined with an ideology that excuses or promotes violence to advance its primacy by instilling hate, adds up to extremism. Finally, this definition enables leaders to address all types of prejudice by distinguishing free speech from hate speech that enables or excuses violence—at a cost to everyone’s humanity. And after developing a workable definition of extremism, that increases understanding of its causes and effects, leaders can begin to address extremism in a meaningful and enduring way.

Leadership Is the Way

Inspiring leadership—by demonstrating compassion and respect for all—can best address extremist views and influences within the ranks of the U.S. military. Exemplary leaders offer unifying messages to bring people together, not ones that divide people into classes. U.S. law protects individuals, as well as individuals who belong to protected classes. People should be judged based on their actions and not based on their identity, beliefs or physical attributes. A consequence of viewing extremism as a mindset is that one can shift efforts from attempting to identify extremists (acting like thought police) and focus instead on inculcating inclusion. Inclusion, diversity and “equal empowerment” are all leadership tools to help fight extremism.

Qualities that enable inspiring leadership—humility and empathy—are antidotes to extremism. Humility requires listening, the consideration of contrary views, and a willingness to accept that one’s views may be wrong. Empathy builds on humility and takes it to the next level, not just by listening to contrary views but by striving to understand why a person has those views. Increasing understanding combats extremism, since people fear what they don’t understand.

Some people have described levels of empathy as “emotional intelligence”—the extent to which one can place oneself in the shoes of another person and see the world from that person’s perspective. Others have described a willingness to recognize that one’s beliefs may be wrong, based on personal limitations and a lack of factual support, as “intellectual humility.” Regardless of how they are described, humility and empathy do not cause people to lose their identity or adopt viewpoints they find disagreeable—but these collaborative character traits do cultivate a willingness to understand, a measure of respect and even compassion for people who are different. Thus, humility and empathy can protect individuals from extremist thinking.

Prosecution Will Not Stop Extremism

An alternative or additional method to address the manifestation of extremist behavior by military members is through the Uniform (criminal) Code of Military Justice. But to the extent that policymakers can agree that extremism is a mindset, the prosecution of thought is not a viable option.

When extremist thinking results in violence, the focus should be on prosecuting the criminal acts instead of the motives for those crimes. Extremist activities or effects may be addressed by existing military offenses (vice creating an extremism crime or modifying punitive orders), including assault, communicating threats, provoking speeches or gestures, conduct unbecoming, conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, or service discrediting conduct. But the military could consider sentencing guidelines allowing for sentencing enhancements based on hate.

Due to the increased focus on extremists with prior military service, criticism has been levied at the military for administratively discharging members with extremist views instead of prosecuting them in military court. Despite this criticism, the prosecution of extremism has not been successful in the civilian system. Thus, accountability should focus on existing crimes caused by extremism.

Divided We Fall

What do extremist views have to do with warfighting effectiveness? Everything. If, for example, members have extreme hatred for each other based solely on skin color or identity, they will not be able to fight together from the same foxhole, cockpit or (ship) battle station. Additionally, the U.S. Congressional Research Service has found, based on studies, that “sameness” is “less important than the shared experiences of the [military] unit.” Leaders can form effective teams based on shared experiences and trust. And to build trust, leaders must respect their people and not abuse the trust they hope to earn.

Some military members may come from families and backgrounds with extremist views. These few either embrace the military’s meritocracy or leave military service, one way or another, after discovering their views are not compatible with the military. But like all members of society, military members are susceptible to false narratives and misperception. Because a core principle of the U.S. military is its command and control by civilian leadership, civilian leaders have a responsibility in promoting diverse views and inclusivity. All leaders, civilian and military, have a duty to steer debates about ideas away from attacks on classes of people and groups.

If leaders continue to attack groups to further their own personal agendas, U.S. adversaries will exploit divisions among U.S. citizens by amplifying and spreading extremist views. Such adversaries may also attempt, via proxies, to exploit ineffective laws (“lawfare”), including those enacted to specifically prohibit extremism. The U.S., however, should maintain its ideals and not bend to fear, by enacting effective laws and ratifying multilateral treaties that reflect American values.

To defend against adversaries that would use extremism to sow division, leaders should cultivate cohesion through shared service and trust. Trust is built on mutual respect, which is earned through honest communication and demonstrated humility and empathy. Shared experience forged in hardship enables enduring unit cohesion, not “surface sameness.” Establishing a common purpose for the betterment of all people furthers unit cohesion as well. And a workable definition of extremism gives military leaders a crucial tool to achieve cohesion.

Keith S. Gibel is an active-duty captain in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and serves as a national security law professor at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (TJAGLCS) in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is pursuing a master’s degree in practical ethics with the University of Oxford. The views expressed herein are his own personal views, and they do not reflect those of TJAGLCS, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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