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Dartmouth Researcher Warns Of 'Splits Among The Population' If American Extremism Persists

barbed wire and steel fencing in front of the U.S. Capitol building
Rebecca Blackwell
Associated Press
Steel fencing and barbed wire surround the U.S. Capitol building as security is heightened ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony.

Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, extreme security measures are in place ahead of Wednesday's inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. One Dartmouth security expert who normally studies election-related violence and extremism outside the U.S. is now using that knowledge to frame what's happening here.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with V.S. Subrahmanian, professor and director for Dartmouth’s Institute for Security, Technology, and Society, to put both the real-world and cyber threats to states and the national Capitol in perspective. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So what we're seeing in the lead up to this inauguration, up to 25,000 National Guard members on hand. Can you put this into context for us? How does it compare to the security threats that you normally study?

V.S. Subrahmanian: I normally study terrorist threats around the world, mostly outside the United States. Now, in the context of elections, we know for decades that elections and violence have gone hand-in-hand in many parts around the world. Typically, violence around elections occurs when the incumbent party wishes to stay in power and use illegitimate means and break the vote in order to do so.

In this situation in the United States, we have the opposite: We have the incumbent party, which is usually accused of fraud by the challenger, actually saying that they believe that the election is rigged, which is the exact opposite of what happens in most cases. So this is a very unusual situation in a country, the U.S., which has some of the most fair and free elections in the world.

Candidates, as you know, routinely concede the election even when they've won the popular vote, because we're a country governed by laws, and our laws say that the Electoral College determines the outcome of the election.

I mean, have you ever thought of the United States in this context, of this kind of attempted power grab?

You know, Mitch, I was thinking of elections that have been plagued by violence. And in recent months we've seen elections in Uganda, we've seen elections in the Central African Republic — and I had never thought that I would be speaking about elections in the U.S. in the same terms as those elections. So this is a huge surprise.

Can we talk about language for a moment? Because we've heard a lot since the events of Jan. 6. And I think a lot of us are still processing what happened. But a lot of people are calling this domestic terror, and the people that took part in those riots, domestic terrorists. Should we consider that as correct language to use in this context?

It's a tough question. But according to the FBI's definition of terrorism, the unlawful use of violence to intimidate people for political ends is something that I think is definitely relevant here.

"... what we are seeing in the United States today is that these violent extremists who have carried out these acts do seem to have some support among a segment of the population. And so we must both fight the actual incidents and plans to carry out attacks, as well as address the root causes underlying some of the phenomena we're seeing." — V.S. Subrahmanian, Dartmouth

We need to think about not just the definition of terrorism, but how to fight this kind of terror. There are two issues to think about here. One is the symptoms, in this case, the acts of violence. And the second are the underlying causes that seem linked to those acts of violence.

You know, overseas terrorist groups that my group has studied, we know the terrorists operate within a society, and that parts of that society may help support the terrorist cause. Some parts of that society may support and share the grievances of the group.

But in general, what we are seeing in the United States today is that these violent extremists who have carried out these acts do seem to have some support amongst a segment of the population. And so we must both fight the actual incidents and plans to carry out attacks, as well as address the root causes underlying some of the phenomena we're seeing..

How to fight this kind of insurrection, I think, is really difficult, as you've just pointed out. And we've seen state capitols with armed groups demonstrating. We saw in the Michigan capital of Lansing in April, you know, armed protesters going right up into the building.

More than 100 people have been arrested since the Jan. 6 insurrection. It's kind of a militarized law enforcement response with arrests at this point. Is that an effective response?

That can't be the whole response. When arrests occur, terrorist groups typically react in one of two ways. Either the arrests and law enforcement actions tamp down on the violence, or the terrorists react a few weeks or months later by increasing and upping their attacks. And the latter is often the case when they wish to prove that they are strong, tell their base they're strong, and furthermore, you know, perhaps exact revenge.

A very important thing to think about here is that past studies have shown that when about 15-18% of the population starts siding with an extremist ideology, then we can see long-term repercussions and splits amongst the population as a whole. And we definitely want to avoid that.

And for this, we need to use a mix of carrots and sticks, sticks, which are law enforcement actions and carrots, which are mechanisms to understand the underlying grievances and see which of them can be fixed and if so, try and fix them.

More from VPR: Police In Riot Gear Patrol A Quiet Vt. Statehouse On Sunday

You study cyber threats in addition to the real-world threats. Is there anything to say about how these extremist groups are threatening violence, how they're communicating, using the internet, perhaps? I mean, what should we be concerned about here in terms of how they're communicating with each other?

Well, extremist groups have been communicating through the major social media platforms. And the good news there is that those social media platforms have started clamping down on any kind of activity that glorifies violence.

They've also been communicating through, I would say, less well-known social platforms. And those platforms have also been recently defanged because of actions taken by the cloud service providers that support their operations.

As things evolve, and as more and more enforcement actions cause these platforms to clamp down on political violence and support for violence, we can expect that the extremists will move to less well-known platforms. And, you know, I can think of a number of them. But, for example, if you think of your common fitness app, that may support in-app messaging that allows you to talk to other people.

So a lot of apps nowadays offer these kinds of features, and we can expect to see movement towards less easy-to-monitor communications that enables these extremist groups to organize better.

Professor Subrahmanian, in the last few seconds we have here, I'm wondering if you think this is kind of the new normal, or is this particular to President Trump, who we know was an unusual president? Let's put it that way.

Mitch, I have great faith in America and the American people. I think this is not the new normal. And I think we do have to work to make sure that we bring all parts of our society back together.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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