After the attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security warned that the United States faces a growing domestic threat from violent extremists. That’s in part because social media and the internet have enabled radicalism to spread and thrive within communities of all descriptions.
How can these communities prevent violence, and how can they watch for indicators of extremism?
These questions are preoccupying scholars at DU’s Colorado Resilience Collaborative (CRC), a targeted-violence prevention program based in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology’s program on international disaster psychology. Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the CRC aims to bridge the knowledge and resource gaps that potential responders often face. The collaborative also aims to help sustain targeted-violence prevention efforts across the state.
The University of Denver Magazine asked Maria Vukovich, principal investigator and director of research for the CRC, and Max Murray, the CRC’s program coordinator, to field a few questions about the urgency and nature of their work, trends they’ve seen in Colorado and the importance of community awareness. Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why is this work so important?
Targeted violence is a complex problem that cannot be resolved by corrections alone. Nor can we focus exclusively on post-offense intervention.
Prevention work is important because responding to violence without working to prevent it does not address the underlying circumstances that allowed it to be perpetuated. One way to think about prevention of targeted violence is as a kind of community inoculation. If those who are at risk to be targeted have the [community] support they need, and if those who might be at risk for involvement in targeted violence have strong community support systems that can keep them grounded, connected to positive outlets and accountable, then we can decrease the risk from more than one angle.
The goal here is to address this multifaceted issue with an equally multifaceted intervention.
What trends have you seen related to targeted violence across the country and in Colorado in recent years?
Nationally, the FBI reported a 35% increase in hate crimes between 2019 and 2020, with the most prominent in both years being related to race/ethnicity/ancestry bias. While this category represented the majority of hate-crime types, gender identity and sexual orientation also constituted a large portion of the hate crimes the FBI reported in 2020. In 2019, simple assault and destruction/vandalism/damage of property constituted just over half of the hate crimes reported, while in 2020 the top two categories were intimidation and vandalism.
An important thing to remember about these numbers is that they represent only hate crimes and not other bias-motivated incidents or acts of targeted violence that are not labeled as criminal. These numbers also represent only reported crimes. One of the most prominent and lasting trends in targeted violence is how often it is not reported.
Locally, there have been eight tragedies that resulted in the murder of [three or more] people in Colorado since 1993. These incidents of targeted violence include mass shootings in Colorado Springs, Boulder, Thornton, Aurora and Columbine High School. In addition to the lost lives, thousands of survivors have been deeply affected, and communities have collectively been impacted in lasting ways.
There also has been an uptick in violent extremism activity across the state. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s ADL H.E.A.T. (hate, extremism, anti-Semitism and terrorism) map, there have been 344 incidents in Colorado since 2018.
Violent extremism and targeted violence can often be tied to personal angst. Can you talk about that and about what else the public should look for?
It’s important to emphasize that there is no single factor that indicates risk to engage in targeted violence. There is no profile. Instead, the most accurate known way to determine risk for targeted violence is to look for changes from baseline (in other words, changes in what’s normal for an individual to do or say), to pay attention to any sense of isolation or loss, and to note when someone may be expressing a grievance (real or perceived) that they then believe can only be resolved through violence.
Research indicates that violent extremism and targeted violence can be linked to a wide range of pre-criminal behaviors and often tied to personal angst or perceived unfairness. Vulnerabilities or life changes related to social, economic, environmental and political factors can push and pull individuals or groups to radicalize to violence (for example, changes related to safety, housing, income and employment, well-being and belonging, or experiencing a disaster or emergency).
Recruiters for extremist groups often look for those who feel isolated and in search of tangible connection. It’s important in any interaction where you might be noticing these things with a loved one, friend, coworker or other close person to approach them with empathy and really demonstrate a genuine concern for their safety and well-being—and that of others.
It’s also important to not confuse empathy with sympathy. When attempting to interrupt those on the pathway to involvement with an extremist group or on the pathway to engaging in targeted violence, we can be engaged, connected and committed to helping them without endorsing what they might say or do.
What role does spreading awareness play in countering extremism?
Developing and strengthening community awareness of risk and protective factors is the foundation of prevention practice. In particular, the wide range of professionals working in public safety, health services, education and other community-based settings need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills for perceiving concerning behaviors in their communities.
But awareness is not the only step. With it must come acknowledgement that targeted violence is a problem, and there must be a vested interest in disrupting it with a coordinated, evidence-based response.
Knowledge that cultivates greater communitywide investment in promoting safety and well-being of all people is what we really hope to foster and support in our outreach and education activities across the state.