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.”