Words Matter: Don’t Let Trump Limit Violent Extremism to Muslims

Words matter. How we refer to laws, government agencies, and people impact how we (and others) think of them. Which is why I’m terrified about reports that Trump is planning to rename a program from “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism. ”

This change is not only about name.  It is also a change of focus, no longer looking at violent acts of white supremacy, for instance. I presume those acts would be left to some other law enforcement agency or program. But it is the change of name, and therefore message, that I find scary.

By explicitly limiting the taskforce to Islamic violence, Trump is implicitly sending the message that violence born of other beliefs is acceptable, or at the very least, not in the same category of “badness” as violence originating from Islamic extremism. I would even argue that he is speaking to a part of his base which holds racist, anti-Islamic or anti-semitic views, and telling them that acting on those views is acceptable, or even laudable.

The Dome of the Rock

I would remind people that Kristalnacht was not an official government action, but was a vigilante action which was tacitly condoned by the Nazi government. Changing the name of this program begins to move us a little closer to government policies that tacitly condone violence–as long as it is not perpetrated by Muslims.

You may think I’m overreacting. After all, it’s just a name, right? But what legitimate purpose is served by changing the name? It doesn’t even pass the test of “it’s a simpler name,” since it’s actually a longer name.

A signal is being sent. I assure you there are those among Trump’s base who are hearing it loud and clear. It may seem like it matters far less than appointments to various offices or executive orders that have immediate impact. But a name change such as this scare me far more than many of the practical decisions being made, because it is an explicit religious test.

I have always been a little wary of hate crime legislation–it relies too heavily on the intent behind an act rather than the act itself. Criminalize the act, not the motivation for it. This is a variant on hate crime legislation: Violent Extremism by Muslims is being given a different status from Violent Extremism by Christians. How long will it be before Trump is not only not condemning, but actually praising those who shoot up mosques?

Resisting Authority: First We Must Resist Ourselves

Many people have been talking and posting about Orwell’s 1984. They’ve found in it meaningful parallels to our present political situation. I want to suggest another book: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority.

Milgram’s book describes his classic experiments in which he measured the degree to which normal people would obey instructions simply because they were given by an authority figure (in this case a scientist running an experiment). It may be the single scariest book I’ve ever read. It may be the most important book for us to read and remember in these times.

The concise summary of his research is this: two out of three people will apply what they believe to be a fatal shock to a subject (person) because they are told they must do so. There are ways to increase that percentage–such as by increasing the separation between the person receiving the shock and the one administering it–but in all variations of the experiment, at least two in every three individuals administered what they expected to be a fatal level of electricity.

These experiments were conducted

Cover of Book "Obedience to Authority"
Obedience to Authority

in the early ’60s, a direct reaction to the Holocaust. It was, in part, an attempt to understand how average Germans carried out Hitler’s plans.

These experiments have not been repeated or further explored because they have been seen as damaging to the subjects (the individuals who thought they were applying shocks). In fact, the Milgram experiments resulted in human subject committee approval being required for any studies involving human subjects.

We do not know whether knowing that there is a two in three chance that any of us would kill someone if ordered to do so changes our probability of doing so. It is my hope that it does. And that is why I think it is critical that we pay attention to Obedience to Authority now.  If we are to resist the encroachment of an authoritarian government, we must first accept that we are inclined to accept and aid that government.

We can resist.  We must resist. But to do that, we must first understand ourselves, and be willing to resist our natural inclinations.