America’s Hard Path Forward

by Shamil Idriss

Photo courtesy of Mel D. Cole. Instagram: @meldcole

The storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was an alarming reflection of what happens when unresolved conflicts fester; media outlets fuel conspiracies; and craven leaders choose to exploit divides.

As the CEO of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest NGO dedicated to peacebuilding, I work with over 1,000 colleagues to end violent conflict in countries from Mali to Myanmar. We know that turning back from the brink of civil war to forge a strong, cohesive republic is difficult — but that it is possible.

Consider just three components of our American condition and what is required to address them:

A violent insurrection has only just begun

We face an increasingly coordinated, well-networked, and armed array of violent extremist groups. Even as many Americans condemn last week’s failed insurrection, these groups are using it to recruit new followers to show up in force in Washington, DC, and state capitals on Inauguration Day.

We know from our work in places like Kenya and Nigeria, where extremist groups recruit from aggrieved populations, that there are two ways to produce real security:

First, to reduce the appeal of extremist groups and deplete their ranks you must address the popular grievances and insecurities to which they appeal. Public figures must not treat all who are sympathetic to extreme views as already beyond the pale. Community leaders and political representatives must do the hard work of grappling with the grievances that make people susceptible to extremist recruitment.

Second, the threat of extremist violence must be met with united opposition from communities and law enforcement alike. This requires a baseline of trust and mutual respect that will take years to build in America, particularly in light of the origins of U.S. law enforcement in slave patrols and in enforcing laws that entrenched white supremacy. Law enforcement must enforce — and be seen to enforce — a zero-tolerance policy for such extremism within their ranks and be supported in the building of strong relationships with the communities they are meant to serve and protect.

Millions of us fervently believe in dangerous conspiracies

Fueled by a splintered media landscape and incessant baseless claims by craven political leaders, millions of Americans believe in one or more conspiracies: that the election was stolen, that the Democratic Party is running a child exploitation ring, that a malicious deep state controls the government.

Most Americans convinced of conspiracies are not ready to take up arms. And yet, we know that once someone believes one conspiracy, they are more susceptible to others, including that the real threat to democracy is posed by mainstream institutions and society, not armed extremism. As Voltaire observed, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.

“Exiting” someone from conspiratorial thinking requires maintaining contact, exposing them to alternative information, and offering a non-judgmental path back to mainstream society. Many Americans are trying these tactics with members of our own divided families. It is time-consuming and difficult one on one; it is truly daunting on a scale of millions.

We know it is possible to “break the fever” of cult-like thinking at scale, but too often this dramatic switch occurs only after a cataclysm of mass violence, as in post-1945 Germany, post-1994 Rwanda, and post-2002 Sierra Leone. This is why, in our work on the frontlines of divisive conflicts, we produce hundreds of hours of social impact entertainment for TV, radio, and online platforms: serial dramas, call-in programs, talk shows, and reality TV.

These programs reach audiences of millions beholden to conspiracies or dehumanizing narratives, often perpetuated by elites. They cultivate common narratives and popularize non-violent cooperation, which helps to re-humanize people across divides and inoculate populations against misinformation campaigns. Following the genocide in Rwanda, our radio production house Studio Ijambo was credited by senior diplomats with helping to prevent similar atrocities in neighboring Burundi.

In the United States, such efforts could make an enormous difference. They could facilitate a long-overdue process of recognizing how this country has fallen short of its promise of providing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens. They could help Americans to recommit to these ideals across our racial, religious, and political diversity.

Our citizenry is more politically divided than at any time since the Civil War

For decades before President Trump’s election, Americans were growing apart, increasingly viewing political differences as irreconcilable and self-segregating into political pockets: mainly liberal urban areas and mainly conservative rural ones.

Yet polarization is not unique to the United States. From our work in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone, we know that when divided communities identify and act on a shared concern, they reap a dual benefit: progress on the issue itself and deeper trust, which yields new possibilities for cooperation.

In our desire to spark cooperation across dividing lines, it is important to acknowledge and even explore serious disagreements, but not allow them to forestall common ground. As a South African anti-apartheid activist once said, we must “understand the differences, but act on the commonalities.”

Indeed, the grist required to reunite Americans is readily available: combatting a pandemic, supporting the economic shift from dying industries to modern ones, overcoming the enduring legacy of racism. Such challenges offer opportunities for shared action that would improve all Americans’ lives and heal our divides in the process.

But without a concerted effort to stop those bent on violence, break the grip of conspiracy-peddling media, and foster cooperation for the common good, these and other challenges will simply fuel more division.

The threats posed by armed extremism, conspiracy thinking, and polarization are stark, but the good news is that American institutions have held strong.

  • Our courts — presided over by judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike — uniformly resisted the subversion of a legitimate election, as did Secretaries of State and election officials of both parties in all 50 states.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has identified white supremacist and anti-government extremism as the gravest risk to national security, emboldening Congress to approve a 2021 budget with substantial funding for anti-extremism and community-building efforts.
  • In Congress, at the very moment that insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, the most senior Republican and Democratic legislators were facilitating a peaceful transition of power, refusing to leave the building until 4:00 am the next day to complete that process.
  • 2020 saw the largest, most diverse, and most sustained popular demonstrations for racial justice in American history, touching every region of the country and even reverberating worldwide.

These indicators suggest that Americans need not continue down a path toward political violence. There is momentum already pulling us toward another path, one that is long and difficult, but that leads to a better place for us all.

Other nations have charted that path, and so can we.