Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is determined to root out “extremism” from the ranks of the military. He has just concluded a 60-day series of “listening sessions” dealing with the question of how he should go about the task of cleansing the armed forces of bad thoughts and is now ready to begin implementing programs and policies to that end.
But Austin has a huge problem. He has to be able to define “extremism” in such a way as to safeguard our constitutional liberties while rooting out the skinheads, the Klan members, the gangbangers, and violent revolutionaries that make up a small but significant fraction of the armed forces.
What is “extremism”? What is “extremist ideology”? Who can be considered “an extremist”?
Is there any definition of “extremism” that isn’t subjective? What criteria will be used to determine who is “extreme”? Anti-abortion? Anti-gay marriage? Devout Christianity?
Austin, who seems a well-meaning and sincere man, has taken on an impossible task. “This is not about being the thought police,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a Friday briefing. Oh, but it is. It very much is.
Immediate actions ordered by the secretary include defining extremism within the department, updating the service member transition checklist to train veterans who might be targeted by extremist groups, and revising questionnaires given to new recruits to detect past extremism.
Austin also created a countering extremism working group that will meet in mid-April and produce a report within 90 days with medium-term and long-term recommendations.
Kirby said the study would seek “greater fidelity on the scope of the problem” within the department by attempting to gather data. Should membership in “extremist” organizations be banned? Some might consider Planned Parenthood an “extremist” organization. There are those who believe the Catholic Church is “extreme.”
Some conservative members of Congress have been sounding the alarm about this entire process. Are they off-base?
“This has absolutely nothing to do with what god you worship or whether you worship at all,” he said. “This is about the kind of extremist ideology that is based on extreme hatred or discrimination on, based on ethnicity and discrimination based on someone’s personal background and not about, not about religion.”
House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers warned at a March 30 hearing that the rights of religious service members could be affected.
“Legislative attempts to further crack down on domestic terrorism is going to run headlong into the First Amendment rights of our service members, and doing so may have other consequences,” he said.
The Alabama Republican said the issue was far from the most important in the military and proceeded to cite infinitesimal statistics for separation related to extremism.
The old, dead, white men who created the Constitution knew exactly what they were doing in writing the First Amendment. They wanted to remove decisions like who or what is “extreme” from anyone in authority. Again we appear willing to give up a little essential liberty for temporary safety.
Former Democratic Senator from Tennessee Estes Kefauver, a Yale-educated lawyer and former candidate for vice president in 1956, was the only senator to oppose a bill requiring a loyalty oath for federal workers. When asked why he voted against the popular measure he replied, “I didn’t think it was right you could put a man in jail just for what he was thinking in his head.”
Secretary Austin and the Democrats appear to have abandoned the First Amendment in their efforts to root out what they consider to be “extremist” ideas in the military.