The Pentagon‘s new anti-extremism crackdown on troops’ social media activity is also targeting what the brass considers unacceptable elsewhere in a service member’s life — such as the T-shirts a soldier wears, the bumper stickers plastered on the soldier’s car and the tattooed slogans and symbols inked on the soldier’s body.
Defense Department guidance released last week offers new definitions for what constitutes “active participation” by military personnel in a hate group or extremist organization. The most noteworthy updates to the Pentagon policies center on social media, with troops now potentially facing consequences if they share, like or otherwise amplify hateful messages on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere.
But the internet is just one avenue.
“Knowingly displaying paraphernalia, words, or symbols in support of extremist activities or in support of groups or organizations that support extremist activities, such as flags, clothing, tattoos, and bumper stickers, whether on or off a military installation” is a violation of the policy, the Pentagon guidance says.
The updated guidelines are sure to be controversial. Some critics have argued the Defense Department’s extremism initiative represents a slippery slope, potentially opening the door for conservatives and Christians to be dubbed “extreme” because of their views on abortion, for example.
The Pentagon has pushed back against those criticisms. Military officials have stressed the anti-extremism effort has nothing to do with politics and is instead aimed at identifying service members who might be willing to take part in violent uprisings, such as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which numerous active-duty troops and veterans participated.
Launching the anti-extremism push was one of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first acts after taking office in February, just weeks after the Jan. 6 assault. The Pentagon chief has framed the fight against extremism as a military readiness issue.
“We believe only a very few violate this oath by participating in extremist activities, but even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness — and the physical harm some of these activities can engender can undermine the safety of our people,” Mr. Austin said in a memo last week.
The anti-extremism guidance doesn’t outright ban membership in a hate group, but instead zeroes in on participation. Simply belonging to a White supremacist organization, for example, wouldn’t violate military rules, but wearing a T-shirt with that group’s logo would be a violation, as would having a tattoo of its symbol.
Liking and sharing such a group’s social media content, attending meetings or handing out written materials also would violate military rules. Under the new policies, commanders bear much of the responsibility for policing their own units and flagging any extremist behavior among the people they lead.
As for what constitutes an extremist ideology, the Pentagon directive lays out six broad categories, many of which appear to apply to the Jan. 6 attack. They include: advocating or engaging in unlawful force or violence to deprive others of their constitutional rights; advocating or engaging in unlawful force or violence to achieve a political or ideological goal; advocating or supporting terrorism; advocating or supporting the overthrow of the government; encouraging military or civilian personnel to violate U.S. laws; and advocating discrimination based on, race, color, religion, and other factors.
In all of 2021, officials said they identified about 100 cases of extremism among active-duty military personnel, up from the “low double digits” across each of the services in prior years, senior defense officials said last week when rolling out the new guidelines.
Among both active-duty troops and veterans, the number of criminal acts shot up dramatically in 2021 due largely to the Jan. 6 attack, according to data compiled by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. From 1990 through 2021, at least 458 individuals with military backgrounds committed a criminal act driven by their political, economic, social or religious goals, the consortium said in a recent study.
At least 118 of those individuals have been charged for their actions on Jan. 6.
In 2020, there were just 40 such offenses, and throughout most of the previous decade there were fewer than 20 per year.