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Why Biden’s Strategy for Preventing Domestic Terrorism Could Do More Harm Than Good

The Biden administration is doubling down on an ineffective strategy that invites more police involvement in mental health and social services and bias against communities of color.

Last Updated: June 23, 2021
Published: June 23, 2021
Far-right groups
Spencer Platt/Getty

This article origin­ally appeared in the Los Angeles Times

Pres­id­ent Biden’s just-released National Strategy for Coun­ter­ing Domestic Terror­ism features this approach in its plan to combat far-right viol­ence. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity recently created a new Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships, which will provide funds and support to local law enforce­ment, community groups and insti­tu­tions such as univer­sit­ies to carry out such preven­tion efforts. Among its purposes is to identify people who may become viol­ent and connect them with mental health and social services, often in cooper­a­tion with police.

The Home­land Secur­ity Depart­ment describes this as a “public health” approach, which may sound appeal­ing. But decades of research show that we cannot reli­ably identify poten­tially viol­ent people. And trying to do so will invite more police involve­ment in mental health and social services and bias against the same communit­ies that bear the brunt of far-right viol­ence, as a new report from the Bren­nan Center for Justice docu­ments.

Many of the beha­vi­ors and traits the center iden­ti­fies as mark­ers of poten­tial viol­ence — being socially alien­ated, depressed, having a “griev­ance,” for example — are both vague and common. Treat­ing what are often adverse social condi­tions as poten­tial police matters hurts efforts to support people strug­gling with these condi­tions.

The new center essen­tially puts a new label on Home­land Secur­ity’s old Targeted Viol­ence and Terror­ism Preven­tion program, which Biden had prom­ised to end. That program, in turn, was a rebrand of a war-on-terror-era program called Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism, which broadly treated Muslim Amer­ic­ans as terror­ism risks.

These earlier programs treated actions such as attend­ing a mosque more frequently and being concerned about anti-Muslim discrim­in­a­tion or human rights abuses as reas­ons for crim­inal suspi­cion. While the Biden admin­is­tra­tion’s disavowal of the heavy-handed target­ing that marked the war on terror approach is welcome, the new program’s preven­tion activ­it­ies rest on the same flawed found­a­tion and impose many of the same harms.

The Biden program claims its preven­tion model is evid­ence-based, but the very stud­ies it cites say that predict­ing who will engage or attempt to engage in terror­ism “is an unreal­istic goal.” Instead, govern­ment-run stud­ies in this field claim to identify common­al­it­ies among those who have carried out viol­ent attacks, labeling them risk factors and indic­at­ors that bear on whether a person is going to commit viol­ence.

The main prob­lem is that these signs — such as mental health issues, having trouble at home or in rela­tion­ships, having a polit­ical or personal “griev­ance” — are shared by millions and hardly serve to separ­ate out poten­tially viol­ent people from ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans. The involve­ment of law enforce­ment means that indi­vidu­als with these condi­tions are unfairly tagged as poten­tial crim­in­als and become at risk of being funneled into the crim­inal justice system.

Nor does Home­land Secur­ity account for how race, reli­gion and ethni­city influ­ence who is tagged as danger­ous. This holds true in schools, where discip­line falls more heav­ily on chil­dren of color; in poli­cing, where race often dictates who is targeted for enforce­ment; and in counter-terror­ism, where Muslims have borne the brunt of suspi­cion.

The new program is supposed to work with the Home­land Secur­ity Office of Civil Rights and Liber­ties to ensure rights are protec­ted, but it has not specified any concrete safe­guards. The program form­ally requires those receiv­ing its grants to address privacy and civil rights concerns when apply­ing for funds. But these require­ments also exis­ted in the earlier programs, without much effect.

Of course, people exper­i­en­cing condi­tions that the program iden­ti­fies as poten­tial mark­ers of viol­ence could well bene­fit from ment­or­ship programs or mental health treat­ment. But link­ing access to such services to a propensity for viol­ent crime makes it less likely that people will seek out help when they need it.

A better path forward is to wall off secur­ity agen­cies such as Home­land Secur­ity from efforts to address the social prob­lems the depart­ment frames as threats and leave these issues to people with the right expert­ise. One blue­print is the recently rein­tro­duced Coun­sel­ing Not Crim­in­al­iz­a­tion in Schools Act, which proposes funds to replace police in schools with social service providers such as teach­ers, coun­selors, social work­ers and nurses and prohib­its the use of money for part­ner­ships with law enforce­ment.

Home­land Secur­ity’s Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships is unlikely to help prevent viol­ence by mixing health and social services in a law enforce­ment frame­work, but it will harm the communit­ies it is trying to protect. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion should instead invest in badly needed social services through the agen­cies most equipped to provide them.