When high school freshman Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, social media lit up in outrage. Later that day, President Barack Obama tweeted an invitation to Ahmed to bring his clock to the White House. While this message of support is welcome, the president is also supporting programs that may actually increase the likelihood that Muslim children will be viewed as threats by the schoolteachers whose job is to nurture their ambitions and dreams.
Since 2011, the Obama administration has rolled out several programs under the banner of “Countering Violent Extremism.” It’s a appealing idea in theory: From the Boston Marathon bombing to the shooting of African American church-goers in Charleston, S.C., we’ve seen horrific violence carried out in the name of ideology. Who wouldn’t want to preempt people thinking of committing violence?
Unfortunately, our ability to predict who is going to become violent simply doesn’t match up to this goal. Since the 9/11 attacks, millions of dollars have been spent to figure out what leads someone to carry out an attack in the name of Islam—to no avail. As of 2011, the Department of Homeland Security claimed to have produced at least 25 reports on violent extremism in the U.S., but was still looking to identify any “preoperational indicators” of terrorism.
Just about every “Countering Violent Extremism” plan begins by acknowledging this reality, but then goes on to identify indicators, usually calling them “risk factors” or “vulnerabilities.” In a new twist, programs that have been rolled out in three areas—Boston, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities—take the position that school teachers, mental health workers, and families will be able to make predictions that terrorism researchers say may be impossible.
It may be that, from time to time, a schoolteacher or family member notices something that makes them concerned about a young person. But many of the warning flags identified by government agencies are so vague as to be absurd. Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco has warned parents and community members that “sudden personality changes in their children,” “clashes over ideological differences,” or “watching or sharing violent material” could be signs that a teenager will turn in his Nintendo for a plane ticket to Syria. Other flags include political viewpoints and religious behavior.
You don’t need to be a counterterrorism expert to understand that these types of flags will bring attention to huge swaths of people unlikely to even think of committing a violent act.
Many American Muslims see these efforts as further institutionalizing the government’s insistence on treating them as suspects rather than regular Americans. Some in these communities worry that these programs are a cover for intelligence gathering. And it’s unclear how these programs will be implemented. What training will community representatives receive to identify the “root causes of radicalization” that have eluded experts for decades?
The administration has yet to answer these questions. Until it does, it should stop sponsoring these programs. The government should provide social services to underserved pockets of American Muslims. But tagging these efforts as counterterrorism only reinforces the suspicion of Muslims that led to Ahmed’s arrest—and risks subjecting other innocent youngsters to the same treatment.
Faiza Patel serves as co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. She has testified before Congress opposing the dragnet surveillance of Muslims, organized advocacy efforts against state laws designed to incite fear of Islam, and developed legislation creating an independent Inspector General for the NYPD.