While Apple and the federal government duke it out over the encrypted phone of a dead terrorist, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is keeping things old school by advocating that educators start paying close attention to any radical leanings among their students.
In January, the FBI’s Office of Partner Engagement – a liaison between the FBI, other feds, and local and school law enforcement – released an unclassified paper detailing a plan to keep an eye on any latent anti-American activity in high school youths.
As Alternet and a few other outlets have noted, the paper and the matching Countering Violent Extremism website – including a typical to government clueless one for teens, which involves inane “learning” games – carefully makes sure not to appear to be targeting merely Muslim young people, thereby avoiding accusations of racial, religious, or ethnic profiling. The overall picture then ends up being coy, yet terrifyingly broad in terms of what might be a sign of dangerous youth activity or thought.
Targeting profiling is bad enough. But the FBI here is also advocating sniffing even the most delicate stench of radicalism, as the Department of Homeland Security did in their much-reviled 2009 memo about the supposed Obama presidency-influenced influx of antigovernment terrorism. Therefore, animal rights activists, anarchists, and others are grouped together with white supremacists and actual international terrorist groups. Teen predators all. (Oh, and mental illness is also a danger sign. Because people dealing with that are not suffering, or disincentivized from getting help enough.)
Violence, in theory, is the dangerous ribbon to tie together these disparate packages of extremism. However, this is the FBI we’re talking about. They lately incite more terrorist plots than they stop. To encourage authority figures to start paying undue attention to teenagers, and to report anything weird they see to law enforcement is to add more Stasi-style fearmongering to an already paranoid country, and to even more easily terrified schools. Schools that have greater and greater tolerance for the presence of police officers in their halls, and who seem to be arresting more and more students for even minor infractions.
Nobody wants depressed 15-year-olds to turn to the Islamic State to solve their ills, it’s true. (Or even for them to burn a couple of SUVs or break into a mink farm, which is occasionally the definition of domestic terrorism.)
It sounds okay when the FBI suggests “Leveraging school programs to deter youth from embracing extremist ideologies; and Fostering the ideals of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance, while upholding Constitutional freedoms and rights under the law.” How vague, yet positive!
The first nine pages of the report continue in this manner. There’s a broad psychological lens over the question of what might make “adolescents” between 14 and 24 turn to “violent extremism.” How parents, and schools, and good role models might be positive. And then the suggestions for what actually intervening before little Bobby goes full ISIS begin; “Limiting idle times and unobserved space provides less time to engage in negative activities” is one such notion. Instead, “Replacing idle times with positive social interactions may reduce activities in unobserved space.” Helicopter parenting (and overbearing teachers), one assumes, can fight ISIS recruitment. Giving kids freedom is exactly what the terrorists want.
Unsurprisingly, social media is mentioned as a powerful method of getting kids interested in radicalism. And to be fair, ISIS’s savvy with social media and cinematic murder-videos has been well-documented. So has the success of Al-Qaeda with their Inspire magazine. (If the US is going to assassinate an American citizen for terrorist speech, as they did in the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki, you know speech is serious business.) But we’re talking about the wide, wide landscape of social media. It is simply enormous (more than a billion people are on Facebook) and teens actually getting involved with ISIS – especially Western ones – remains a blessedly minor thing.
After mentioning the dangers of social media, the report also says that terrorists like to take their predatory chats with would-be recruits off of regular social media, and into encrypted channels. Because of “going dark” this means that law enforcement can’t intercept the terrorism stew in time. The use of encryption by terrorists and other criminals is certainly not unheard of, however it would be incredibly naive to think that this section is not a deliberate attempt to trumpet support for the “right” side in Apple and other tech companies’ privacy war with the government.
Once again, the vague condemnation leads to sentences such as “ Extremists might possess a working knowledge of hacking or anonymizer capabilities, further complicating the ability to lawfully trace communications.” Extremists like the teens who use the anonymous Yik Yak app? Or the folks at Lavabit, or the Tor project? Or are they just helping the terrorists? (The government had a part in building and funding the anonymising Tor, but presumably when they use such tools, it isn’t “extremism.”)
And the cryptic hyperbole! “Even limited exposure to violent extremist propaganda may result on a path towards violent extremism,” says the report. A savvy 17-year-old researching or curious about ISIS or Al-Qaeda or the Oklahoma City Bombing must be watched carefully by educators and parents to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of terrorism. Wanting to know about violent groups or people is one step towards becoming one, if you’re an FBI warning that is.
Gamers are not safe from the lure of the Medievally-Moral ISIS. Turns out “Online gaming can also teach rudimentary warfare protocols, rules of engagement, and other military actions.” Sure. We know that war video games can teach a lot, maybe even help with desensitization when it comes to fighting real wars. So does the US military.
Let’s talk about definitions for a minute. The report has a kind of commendable honestly when it notes that if you’re extreme, that means you believe that “engagement in or facilitation of nonstate violence to achieve social and political change is necessary and justified.” Emphasis added all right. There’s the rub. Nobody with a working conscience wants ISIS to make any strides, especially when you’re talking about potential bloodshed in a school of innocents. But right there – nonstate violence. That’s the only problem, isn’t it? That’s the only kind of violence that counts.
Finally, here’s the heart of the thing. The report continues to be carefully nonspecific and suggesting that most would-be violent people are not to be found by establishing a pattern. However, “students and educators are encouraged to convey their concerns and observations to trusted community partners, school resource officers, or a local law enforcement entity.” And “acting decisively” is important if a teacher sees that a student has turned terrorist.
Fundamentally, the FBI wants people not to profile, but as soon as someone fits the profile, they should call law enforcement. And that profile, fittingly, can include such asinine checkpoints as “feeling lost” or having some kind of mental health problem (welcome to America and its neurosis and depression). The FBI’s new teen website details more of the warning signs, which are predictably meaningless, yet menacing.
Just about every teenager is a little bit stupid. However, their implied fragility and amorality here is ridiculous. Teenagers need to know about current events and about history. Terrorism – including what it looks like, and what its professed motives might be – is a part of both of those subjects. Anarchism, animal rights activism, and opposition to abortion should not get anyone flagged by a clueless teacher, much less actual law enforcement. Nor should questioning the narrative of the war on terror. To do the latter is not to have sympathy for terrorists, but to realize that the US has terrorized plenty of people. Hopefully this sort of investigation might lead a kid towards, if anything, the cause of nonviolence instead.
The idea that the FBI, or even public school teachers, have the ability to tell the difference between peaceful radicalism, curiosity, research or even meaningless, shock-value teenage rebellion is fundamentally absurd; additionally absurd in a post-Columbine, zero-tolerance America. The sophomore of 2000 was getting hauled into to the principal’s office, or being detained by the school resource officer for writing a short story where someone uses a gun. The sophomore of 2016 will be eyed with suspicion if they hug a tree, object to the war on terror, or happen to be a Muslim. This plan to spy on adolescents may be new, but it’s still the same sort of creeping, militarized nonsense from a law enforcement community that has been working its feelers into schools more and more since Columbine. But it’s something that needs to be pushed back against before public school and prison truly become as indistinguishable as law enforcement wants. Then we’ll be safe, and so will the kids.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.