Tattoos, clothes and car stickers: The anti-extremist Pentagon pushes for more than just social media

The Pentagon’s new counter-extremism campaign on troop activity on social media also targets what officers consider unacceptable elsewhere in a service member’s life — such as the shirts a soldier wears, the bumper stickers on a soldier’s car and tattooed emblems. And ink symbols on the soldier’s body.

Directives issued by the Department of Defense last week provide new definitions of what constitutes “active participation” by military personnel in a hate group or extremist organization. The most noteworthy updates to Pentagon policies center on social media, where troops will now likely face consequences if they share or amplify hate messages on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere.


But the Internet is just one way.

“Knowingly displaying tools, 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 they are inside or outside a military facility,” is a violation of policy, the Pentagon guidelines say.

The updated guidelines are sure to be controversial. Some critics have argued that the Department of Defense’s radicalization initiative represents a slippery slope, which could open the door for conservatives and Christians to be labeled “radicals” because of their views on abortion, for example.

The Pentagon retracted those criticisms. Military officials stressed that counterextremism efforts have nothing to do with politics, and are aimed instead at identifying service members who might be willing to participate in violent uprisings, such as the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which many have been active. – Engaged service soldiers and veterans.

Launching a counter-extremism campaign was one of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first actions after taking office in February, just weeks after the January 6 attack. The Pentagon chief has framed the fight against extremism as a matter of military readiness.

“We believe that only a few violate this oath by participating in extremist activities, but even the actions of a few can have a significant impact on unit cohesion, morale and preparedness – and the physical harm that some of these activities can generate can undermine safety,” Mr. Austin said. In a note last week.

Anti-extremism guidelines do not ban membership in a hate group entirely, but instead do not prohibit participation. Merely belonging to a white supremacist organization, for example, would not 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 the social media content of such a group, attending meetings or distributing written materials, would also violate military rules. Under the new policies, commanders have a lot of responsibility to monitor their own units and report any extremist behavior among the people they command.

As for what constitutes extremist ideology, the Pentagon directive lays out six broad categories, many of which appear to apply to the January 6 attack. They include: advocating or engaging in unlawful force or violence to deprive others of their constitutional rights; Advocating or engaging in the use of unlawful force or violence to achieve a political or ideological objective; advocating or supporting terrorism; Advocating or supporting the overthrow of the government; encouraging military or civilian personnel to violate United States laws; and advocating discrimination based on race, color, religion and other factors.

In all of 2021, officials said they identified about 100 cases of radicalization among active-duty military personnel, up from “low double numbers” in both services in previous years, senior defense officials said last week when introducing the new guidelines.

Among both active duty forces and veterans, the number of criminal acts increased dramatically in 2021 largely due to the January 6 attack, according to data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. From 1990 through 2021, at least 458 individuals with military backgrounds committed a criminal act motivated by their political, economic, social or religious goals, the federation said in a recent study.

At least 118 of these individuals were charged for their actions on January 6th.

In 2020, there were only 40 such crimes, and for most of the previous decade there were fewer than 20 crimes per year.

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