IN Britain a program that claims to help root out extremism has garnered considerable publicity.
The Association of Chief Police Officers announced this week that its “Channel Project” has successfully intervened in cases involving about 200 children considered to be at risk of extremist behavior or susceptible of being “groomed” by radicals.
I was initially encouraged when I heard about an intervention program to rescue kids from extremism, thinking naively that the police were concerned about all forms of extremism, from gang activity to curbing neo-Nazi activity.
I quickly discovered that the police, at least in the confines of this program, were not interested in saving young children from gangs and racist behavior. Rather, they were apparently only interested in curbing the West’s greatest fear: Radical Islam.The project originally began in Lancashire in 2007 and was extended last year to West Yorkshire, the Midlands, Bedfordshire and South Wales.
There are now plans to expand the program to the rest of the country.Its scheme works like this: Authorities train parents, teachers and youth workers to recognize signs of radicalism in children, then report those concerns to the police. A community panel then decides on what action to take with the most serious cases referred to social services.
This kind of plan is fraught with so many danger signs it’s beyond comprehension. First, the program clearly targets the Muslim community. By focusing on a single group of people with a 1984 mindset reduces our neighbors, friends and co-workers to informants and spies. This will only damage the inherent trust that we have for the people we know.
Secondly, authorities do not explain how the program trains teachers to identify a 13-year-old “potential terrorist.”Can a teacher’s hidden biases and prejudices be identified to prevent someone from carrying out a hidden agenda to harm a child of a specific ethnic background? Even if a teacher is well-intentioned does that person possess the skills and judgment to make a proper identification?
Does a young boy’s fascination with war, guns and adventure mean he is a potential militant or that he is a typical boy who likes his Xbox too much? Does a young girl’s thoughtful essay on Muslim anger in our post 9/11 world rise to the level of extremist ideology or is it her exercise in freedom of expression?Singling out a specific group of people based on their ethnicity or religion only heightens the fear of people who believe that where there is smoke there is fire.
Painting a group with a broad brush is counter-productive and only further isolates that community.Once a child is identified as being susceptible to “radical Islam” he or she could be stigmatized in the community. There are few secrets in a classroom and if a child is receiving special attention for whatever reason, others will know about or fill in the gaps to rumor and innuendo.
Being labeled a radical under any circumstances and having a police file opened on a child could have lifelong consequences.Sir Norman Bettison, the chief constable of West Yorkshire Police and the senior officer in charge of terror prevention, noted that one of the July 7, 2005, bombers of the London tube was a good student, well-adjusted and well-integrated into British society.
But his classroom writings praising Al-Qaeda did not prompt any special attention from school officials, who were aware of his sympathy for the terrorists. Certainly, we now recognize that intervention is critical in such instances, but what is lacking is the threshold of probable cause to inform the police of what constitutes potential radical ideology.
History has taught us that government attempts to make informants out of our friends and neighbors have backfired more times than has been successful. Americans learned the hard away when hundreds, if not thousands, of people were blacklisted in the 1950s and lost their jobs and often their families for their leftist leanings or that countless lives were lost in Europe during World War II when neighbors routinely turned in their friends to authorities on the slightest infraction.
Fear begets fear and soon we are sliding down a slippery slope to where a scenario similar to the movie “Children of Men” is not so farfetched. For many it’s easier to turn in a student or friend to authorities on the slightest provocation rather than to be thought of as soft on terrorism or unpatriotic.
Common sense often takes a backseat in these cases.We need to be vigilant to identify young people caught up on extremism but we shouldn’t be vigilantes. That is why if the Channel Project is to succeed then a transparent and thorough training program must be in place to establish what defines probable cause to identify a person as a potential extremist.Without specific rules and guidelines we are condemned to become informers and spies without a conscience.