Quick Thoughts: Vetting and Radicalization

Following Trump’s “Muslim Ban” the issue about the refugee vetting process has reached a fevered pitch.

But few of the arguments (so far) have been constructive.

What we do know is that the vetting process is already very thorough [1], [2], [3] and, statistically, very effective, which is just one reason why so many were so angered by President Trump’s illogical blanket ban that, among many other glaring shortcomings, didn’t include a number of countries with well-established ties to terror.

Fears of admitting Muslim Extremists to the US have been pitted against fears that any type of drastic pivot to a harsher vetting process would only seek to harm America’s image on the world’s stage.

Opponents of current vetting procedures cite a laundry list of terror attacks that have occurred on US soil such as the San Bernardino Attack or the Boston Marathon Bombing (among others) as examples of why we need better vetting for immigrants and refugees to the US. There certainly are improvements to be made to the process, but everyone should be open to discussions that will keep it a fluid and dynamic system.  It must continue to adapt to needs of the US and the world over time by becoming more lax or more restrictive as needed.

In the place of reasonable discussion, however, we’re met with a wild mix of equal parts erroneous conjecture, ignorance of the facts, and utter lack of long-term thinking. I haven’t heard any good arguments about reforming the vetting process, only that it “needs” it, which is quite obviously coming from a place of fear. I’m all for a re-examination of the process so long as: specific deficiencies in our current system are highlighted, solutions to those deficiencies are proposed, and a strong case can be made that these solutions will result in a net-positive impact for the United States. As I see it, there are two major problems facing the United States at present regarding discussions about its policies on terror and immigration:

Problem 1: Conflating the Issues

While it’s entirely true that the US has been the target of both lone-wolf and directed terror attacks on its own soil, people are too quick to single out the vetting process as the culprit.

Most of the perpetrators of US based terror attacks have been young men who are citizens or residents of the US who immigrated with their families, often when they were young.  The vetting process, by definition, does not screen for future radicalization; it is not a “pre-crime” unit, nor should that be expected of it.

Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino attacks, was born and raised in the United States.[4] Of the Tsarnaev brothers who conducted the Boston Marathon Bombings, one was a naturalized US citizen and both were raised in the United States.[5] Omar Mateen, perpetrator of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, was a US citizen born and raised in the US.[6] Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American, immigrated to the US at a young age and would later be implicated in a plot to conduct suicide bombings in New York City. [7] In all of these cases, these terrorists are survived by (or have left behind) members of their families that have passed US vetting procedures and have assimilated into American society without committing any terrorist acts. Curious.

Based on the facts, it appears to me that the the pressing threat to American security (as it indirectly relates to vetting) is not direct terror or subterfuge from foreign migrants, but instead home-grown terrorism and the radicalization of first and second generation immigrants and refugees with no connections – initially or otherwise – to established terror networks. Some of the other more frightening commonalities between these acts is that these are young, impressionable, and oftentimes disturbed men who may seek out violent ideologies that are in-line with their own thoughts. What is more frightening still are the similarities between young men like these and other non-Muslim, American, mass-murderers. It all comes full circle when we realize that we can’t readily stop, or even predict, when the next young male – Muslim, citizen, or otherwise – will decide to enact violence on a mass scale. The only true variable in these despicable occurrences is which misguided ideology the perpetrator will choose to justify their actions.

Problem 2: No Long Term Solution

If we accept that radicalization is an important issue, then perhaps our vetting process shouldn’t be our primary concern. There are certainly issues involving our screening procedures, but in many cases these failures are not intelligence gathering, but failures of action on the part of domestic counter-terror units. [8], [9] We should also re-evaluate the effectiveness and potential harm of domestic terror sting operations and dragnets conducted by US Intelligence Agencies. [10]

We need to consider the effect of heavy-handed and punitive immigration policies on the radicalization of Muslim individuals both at home and abroad. Is wise for us to communicate a distrust of Muslims in general through legislation and executive power? Should we continue to engage in interventions in the Middle East that cause massive collateral damage and further radicalize local populations? Surely not. Instead the United States needs to consider the proper balance between maintaining its security from foreign threats, properly assimilating migrants and immigrants, and supporting (and not hindering) grass-roots reform in the Islamic world. We’re already engaged in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat, reactionary policies, and we have the opportunity to work on ending it if we act intelligently. Perhaps in four or maybe eight years we’ll have the chance to get started in earnest.

Nonetheless, foreign terror is a very real threat and cannot be ignored. I think every American knows that it is only a matter of time before we experience another attack orchestrated by a terror network. Our interventions abroad, however, need to be far more measured than they have been in years past. Likewise, a “take-all-comers” policy for immigration where a few countries unprepared for a massive influx of immigrants bear the brunt of a refugee crisis is a recipe for disaster. Europe is a prime example of the folly of a too-broad refugee effort without appropriate supports, even if their humanitarian spirit is admirable. If we are unable to present a compromise of policy that appeals to those who are already wary of immigrants – specifically Muslim immigrants – we risk the further rightward radicalization of our own constituency which, frankly, frightens me more than nearly anything else.











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