A “national security crisis” or a law enforcement challenge? Consider the data

Everyone is rightly concerned about the dangers extremists can pose, but the post (“Addressing the National Security Threat of White Supremacist Terrorism”) by Jonathan Greenblatt and George Selim, two officials of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), doesn’t help.  It fails to put the risks, as real as they are, in a sufficiently objective context.  But that’s exactly what the public needs to make reasoned and fact-driven decisions not just about resource allocation, but also about the civil liberty and other societal consequences that an authentic national security crisis can implicate.

What does the data show?

Does the data justify transforming a law enforcement challenge into “national security crisis”?  Greenblatt and Selim apparently think so.  In their view since the “majority” of the 50 extremist-related deaths in 2018 their organization identified were “specifically perpetrated by white supremacists,” there is sufficient grounds for characterizing the situation as a “national security crisis.”

ADL’s analysis does attribute 78% of those 50 extremist murders (amounting to 39 deaths) to white supremacists, but what Greenblatt and Selim don’t tell you is that as tragic as those 39 deaths were, they are among “16,214 reported cases of murder or non-negligent manslaughter in the United States” which occurred the same year.  So, yes, while it’s undeniable that white-supremacists represent a genuine danger, aren’t those who committed the thousands of other murders of greater concern?  In fact, if there is a “crisis,” isn’t it more appropriately framed as a law enforcement one within the capability of America’s 680,000 police officers to handle?

However, if white supremacist extremism really does constitute a national security threat as Greenblatt and Selim say, to what degree do we want America’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems to evolve into national security enterprises to meet this national security crisis?  In my view this should properly remain a law enforcement issue as characterizing it otherwise has unwanted unintended consequences.

For example, Snopes.com reported earlier this year that “[i]If the rate of homicide conviction seen in Texas was the same as the nationwide rate, this would work out to be around 278 homicide convictions of undocumented immigrants throughout the United States in 2016, and a similar number in 2018.” (Emphasis in original.)  Would we want those numbers of homicide convictions to justify characterizing criminality by undocumented immigrants as constituting a “national security crisis”?  Not in my book.

Still, let’s look at some more data.  In deciding the validity of Greenblatt and Selim’s assertion, it may be useful to put their concern in the broader context of the perils Americans face from those who break the law.  For example, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility says that according to the “National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,133 people died in traffic crashes in 2017 in the United States , including an estimated 10,874 people who were killed in drunk driving crashes involving a driver with an illegal BAC (.08 or greater).”  (In 2018 the total was about 40,000.)

As heart-breaking as those numbers are, to my knowledge no one is characterizing them as a national security crisis.

Deaths that might be preventable do plague the U.S.  In 2018 over 68,000 people were killed by drug overdoses, and in June of this year the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that in 2017 (apparently the latest year for which CDC statistics are available) there were 47,173 suicides (with 6,100 veterans were among them).

Indeed, in 2016 Business Insider reported on a number of very unusual causes of death (e.g., lawnmowers killed 951 people) that all radically exceed those who died in the U.S. at the hands of extremists of any kind.

Of course, it isn’t always human action that’s to blame for death totals that exceed those ADL attributes to white supremacists: the National Weather Service says that “[l]ightning kills an average of 49 people each year in the United States and hundreds more are injured.”  Although some argue (mistakenly, in my view) that climate change is a “national; security threat,” I don’t know that deadly lightning strikes alone have yet been given that designation.

Nevertheless, Greenblatt and Selim insist that a “much larger investment, federal, state and local governments” is needed to address their “national security crisis,” and they opine that $1 billion “feels like a reasonable start.”  But decision-makers need (as discussed below) a fact-based perspective on the world, and often must resist the temptation to act based on what something “feels like.”  Shouldn’t we recognize that it isn’t unreasonable for a fully-informed public to conclude that Greenblatt’s and Selim’s “reasonable start” of $1 billion might save more lives if it were spent getting drug dealers, drunk drivers, and other criminals off the streets?

ACLU: “Law enforcement agencies already have all the authority they need to investigate, prosecute, and punish white supremacist violence effectively.”

Greenblatt and Selim also demand that Congress “immediately take up a slate of legislation designed to tackle the problem of domestic terrorism” and they think that can be done without jeopardizing civil liberties.  But Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently warned that in “response to the increase in white supremacist violence… some lawmakers are rushing to give law enforcement agencies harmful additional powers and creating new crimes.”  She insists that such an approach “ignores the way power, racism, and national security laws work in America. It will harm the communities of color that white supremacist violence targets — and undermine the constitutional rights that protect all of us.”

Still, Greenblatt and Selim insist that the “federal legal system currently lacks the means to prosecute a white supremacist terrorist as a terrorist.”  Shamsi sees it otherwise:

Ms. Shamsi

“Law enforcement agencies already have all the authority they need to investigate, prosecute, and punish white supremacist violence effectively. Congress has passed numerous and sometimes overlapping laws that cover white supremacist violence, credible and direct threats of violence, conspiracies, and attempts. It has enacted more than 50 federal domestic terrorism-related crimes, and a related prohibition on “material support” for domestic terrorism. Congress has also provided an entire framework of hate crimes that law enforcement can use to address violence targeting marginalized communities. The FBI has also asserted expansive powers to investigate “domestic terrorism” under the Patriot Act.”

Does the executive branch “refuse to admit that this threat is real”?

Furthermore, Greenblatt and Selim claim that “the executive branch, from its leadership on down, refuses to admit that this threat is real.”  Again, the facts seem to show otherwise.  Counterterrorism experts and former National Security Council officials Christopher Costa and Lawfare contributor Josh Geltzer recently praised the Trump administration’s new Strategy for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, that was released a month ago by the Department of Homeland Security. Costa and Geltzer said they were “proud to see an interagency counterterrorism community that stuck doggedly to its critical mission of keeping Americans safe from terrorist threats, undaunted and undistracted by politics.”

Cost and Geltzer also noted that the Trump administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism released last year specifically listed domestic terrorism as a “persistent threat.”  This year’s document, they advise, built on that by strategy by explicitly addressing the white supremacist threat. They say:

“All told, the new document delivers on the promise of President Trump’s own counterterrorism strategy while vowing that the U.S. government’s approach will “evolve with the threat.” Attacks motivated by white supremacist terrorism are increasing. By emphasizing this rising threat, situating it in the context of a growing transnational white supremacist movement, confronting the dangers posed by firearms in the hands of terrorists, and addressing “targeted violence” as its own form of national security threat, DHS’s strategy reflects an important evolution in terrorism and other violence targeted against civilians.”

Indeed, even with the rise in 2018 that Greenblatt and Selim focus upon, the total deaths (87) during the two years (2017 and 2018) of the Trump administration are significantly less than the last two years of the Obama administration.  In fact, ADL itself admits that the 50 deaths in 2018 are “still lower than the totals for 2015 (70) and 2016 (72)” during Obama’s presidency.

The impact of the “availability heuristic”

The Greenblatt and Selim post is the second time in recent weeks that Lawfare has hosted an essay that aims to hype the threat of right-wing extremism into a “national security crisis.”  Unfortunately, both polemics lacked the kind of information balance that helps the public make difficult policy judgments.  The facts should matter, but a study released last May shows that they can be hard for the citizenry to find because of how issues are covered (or not) in media and other information outlets.

The study asked this question: “is what we actually die from reflected in the media coverage these topics receive?”  Among other things, it found that terrorism was “overrepresented in the news by almost a factor of 4000.”  Apropos to our discussion of whether the 39 homicides attributable to white supremacists constitutes a “national security crisis”, it contends:

“[J]ournalists can do much better in providing context of the broader trends: if reporting on a homicide, for example, include context of how homicide rates are changing over time.  As media consumers we can be much more aware of the fact that relying on the 24/7 news coverage alone is wholly insufficient for understanding the state of the world. This requires us to check our (often unconscious) bias for single narratives and seek out sources that provide a fact-based perspective on the world.” 

When people are exposed to only some of the relevant data, their perceptions can understandably become distorted.  At the LENS conference earlier this year, Mr. Craig Silliman, Executive Vice President of Verizon, gave a fascinating presentation entitled “Three National Security Issues We Will Need to Address in the Next Three Years” in which, among other things, he spoke about how something can be perceived as more threatening than it may really be if the public is repeatedly exposed to it in isolation from the fuller data set, a phenomena known as the “availability heuristic.”  He said that even though the data shows, for example, there is a “far greater likelihood of you being killed by a cow than by a shark,” most people fear sharks much more.  He explained why that is:

Mr. Silliman

“You don’t hear about people getting attacked by cows. And so when I ask you, what is a greater risk? You can immediately call to mind, oh, I’ve heard about people being attacked by sharks.  That must be the greater risk. It’s the same reason many people are more afraid of flying than driving, of Ebola virus than the flu, and of terrorism than just about anything on earth.”

Silliman said “[e]ven though flying and Ebola and terrorism constitute minuscule risks for us in our day to day lives” the fear made “sense from an evolutionary perspective.” “5,000 years ago,” he said, it “makes sense, actually, for me to be very wary of tigers for the afternoon and for the next day, because if I saw one, it is more likely that there is a tiger in the vicinity.”  He added “[t]hat’s availability heuristic in an appropriate setting,” but then cautioned:

“[T]he fact that I saw that someone got attacked by a shark off the coast of Australia, does not mean that I’m more likely to be attacked by a shark in the outer banks of North Carolina, but my brain tells me I am because it can call up examples of attacks.  It’s the same reason that airplane crashes and Ebola virus and terrorism getting covered anywhere in the world, all over the world, causes us to think of these things as greater risks.”

The zero-sum reality of government resources

We can all agree that white supremacist extremism presents a serious peril, but to properly allocate people and resources to battle it, responsible decision-makers need to clearly understand where it lies in the (sadly) rather wide spectrum of threats the modern world presents.

They also need to grapple with this very troubling fact: as horrible as the deaths of 39 people attributable to white supremacist extremism are, in a nation of almost 330 million people, is it truly realistic to think that even a vast increase in resources could drive the number to zero as we all would want?  And if the effort was made, in the zero-sum reality of government budgets, what would be the consequence to programs aimed at other risks that the data shows to be much more deadly?

Recall that Greenblatt and Selim frame their “national security crisis” in terms of white supremacist ideology.  But are we really sure of the role that ideology played in the 2018 murder statistics they quote?  Consider this from the ADL’s own report (but not even mentioned in Greenblatt’s and Selim’s post):

“Ideological motives appear to have played a primary or secondary role in 19 of the 50 extremist murders (38%) in 2018. In the remaining murders, either the role that ideology may have played is unclear, the motives in general are unclear or the murders were likely committed for non-ideological reasons.”

Notably for this discussion Robert Cherry, a professor of economics at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in early September that the “spike” in anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City has “nothing to do with white supremacy” and notes that nearly equal numbers of whites and blacks have been arrested for these offenses.

The importance of avoiding a “crisis mentality”

Everyone has to decide for themselves if Greenblatt and Selim’s facts really justify the declaration of a “national security crisis.”  For me, nearly three and half decades of military service gave me plenty of opportunity to contemplate what constitutes a true “national security crisis.”  Like many who served (or who have been decision-makers), I eschew the word “crisis” because it can induce a “crisis mentality” which, the experts say:

“[U]ndermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words.” 

Don’t denominate every serious national ill in “national security” terms

Moreover, I’ve long opposed characterizing every serious national ill as a “national security threat” (let alone a “national security crisis”) for additional reasons.  As I’ve said elsewhere:

“The problem is that if you denominate something as a “national security” threat, it’s naturally assumed that it’s to be addressed (if not solved) primarily by the defense establishment (to include specifically the military).  A militarized approach to every issue is bad idea, plain and simple… More generally, do we really want the military as the nation’s all-purpose problem-solver for everything that has serious implications for our society?”

I believe doing so would inevitably diffuse the focus of armed forces away from what the Supreme Court tells us is the “primary business” of our military, which isto fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.”  The long-term implications of such diffusion (particularly for a democracy) is a central theme of the 1992(!) paper:The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012”. 

Protect civil liberties

In America’s democracy, the very real peril that white supremacists present are best addressed primarily by an invigorated law enforcement approach, not a national security one.  Can a more holistic approach also be beneficial?  Sure, and there are some excellent ideas in Greenblatt and Selim’s essay that could help root out underlying causes. 

However, it isn’t necessary or useful to hype it as a “national security crisis” based on incomplete data because doing so could put civil liberties needlessly at risk.  Rather, let’s calmly give the American people all the data we can to help them make a judgement as to the appropriate priorities in tackling the nation’s many issues, and to decide what – if any – personal freedoms must yield to accomplish those priorities.

A lot is at stake. In a 2005 speech entitled “Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis” the late Alan Brinkley warned that the “history of civil liberties in times of emergency suggests that governments seldom react to crises carefully or judiciously,” adding that they “acquiesce to the most alarmist proponents of repression.”  To be clear, Greenblatt and Selim seem to think that their proposals (including the  “slate of legislation” aimed at giving significant new powers to security officials, prosecutors, and others) would somehow not impinge upon civil liberties.

I’m skeptical but, regardless, I very much agree with Brinkley that even when there is a genuine crisis we must insist that government decision-makers “see beyond the understandably passionate feelings” that may arise in today’s crisis-hyping world and “frame a reasoned response to the dangers we face.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, checks the facts and the law, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!

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