One Detroit contributors Stephen Henderson and Nolan Finley talk with Javed Ali, former National Security Council Advisor on Counterterrorism and current policy maker in resident at U of M’s Ford School of Public Policy, about the role language plays in inciting extremist behavior and whether or not the U.S. has the right policy framework to confront domestic terrorism.


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Stephen Henderson: What we saw last week here in Michigan with the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer, I think is everyone’s worst nightmare when they think of extremist reactions to political figures or political discourse. But talk about the connection between that kind of behavior and the language that we see unfolding pretty frequently now in in political discourse.

Javed Ali, Towsley Policy Maker in Residence, U-M Ford School of Public Policy: I wrote an opinion piece in the Detroit News. that talked about three key factors that I think are fueling this broader phenomena that’s happening throughout the country. And the Watchmen plot is just a manifestation of that. The three key factors that I talked about were the impact of the pandemics and the protests and the aftermath of the George Floyd death and Brianna Taylor. And then thirdly, the whole state of political discourse in the country. And when it comes to the political discourse, part of it. Yeah. This is really tough to empirically prove. But there are researchers who think that, according to their analysis, that there is a little bit more of a direct correlation between very hard-edged political rhetoric and language and how that motivates individuals towards violent extremism.

Nolan Finley: The First Amendment provides a pretty effective shield for these folks to foment their–the growth of extremism.

Javed Ali, Towsley Policy Maker in Residence, U-M Ford School of Public Policy: This is one of the big challenges for the United States tackling this issue of domestic terrorism we have very strong constitutional protections on on what is considered free speech to include the most extreme and radical ideas, at least to two to all of us here on this screen.

But to the individuals who share those beliefs, as long as they don’t try to take criminal action or even violent action on those beliefs, they’re perfectly legitimate. So, over the course of the last several years, we’ve seen more and more of those, of that kind of sort of propaganda discourse and beliefs, both on the international terrorism side and the domestic terrorism side, sort of percolating, in social media and in other kind of closed environments. Now, there are other countries overseas that have very different laws with with respect to hate speech. You can get prosecuted for terrorism related charges, for doing things in this country are completely legal.

Stephen Henderson: You know, we also have freedom of association in this country. And we saw footage of, for instance, the Senate majority leader onstage earlier with some of the people who were involved in this plot when some of these folks were out of the capital marching around with guns.

Talk about the connection between political leadership and the cover it might be giving in some cases to this kind of reaction.

Javed Ali, Towsley Policy Maker in Residence, U-M Ford School of Public Policy: That’s another sort of issue that we have to sort of unpack here inside the United States with that freedom of association, combined with the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms in public spaces.

These are all things that make it very difficult for law enforcement to know when to intervene. It seemed fairly disturbing to see these not not the protest aspect of it, but the fact that there were so many people showing up armed to these events and then some of those people who are armed actually make got access into the state capital. You can’t bring firearms into most federal buildings, even if you’re a sworn law enforcement officer. And if you are going to do that, you have to go through a whole series of checks. So there seemed to be something very different happening here in Michigan or with the state capital that allowed that to happen then and again, the perceptions it created about whether that’s legitimate or not. And then perhaps the sort of the fear that created as well.

Nolan Finley: how do we get ahead of this, and how do we counter this without trampling rights?

Javed  Ali, Towsley Policy Maker in Residence, U-M Ford School of Public Policy: We don’t have the right policy, framework or paradigm to confront what I believe is now a growing threat of domestic terrorism. And I think there’s a lot of things we could be doing on that front, whether from the legal side, at the federal level, the state local level, the things that could be happening with the private sector and then even local communities.

This is the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City attack, which prior to 9/11 was the single biggest act of terrorism in the United States. We shouldn’t wait for another Oklahoma City type event. We should start doing the groundwork now And I’m just not sure what it’s going to take to bring people together to have those conversations. Hopefully it’s not a tragedy.