We want young men in our country to stop becoming Islamic extremists and killing people.
That basic desire is now on everyone's mind, in almost every country. It is what led to U.S. President Barack Obama's summit this week on "Countering Violent Extremism," and it has led many countries, including Canada, to introduce new laws.
It's a simple goal, involving a very small group of young men (violent extremists are almost all young and male), but one that tends to inspire misdirection, overreaction and wasted effort.
There are basically three ways to respond to this problem.
The first approach is to make it illegal for these young men to hold extremist ideas. It is declared a crime to have positive thoughts about terrorist tactics or organizations or beliefs, as detected when those thoughts are expressed in private or public. Britain was the first to take this approach, with its 2006 Terrorism Act: It banned, very broadly, the "Encouragement etc. of terrorism," which included any idea that "glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally)" of terrorism. Canada's anti-terrorism Bill C-51 is an attempt to mimic this by outlawing the "promotion or advocacy" of terrorism as a general concept or ideology (it was already illegal to advocate specific terrorist acts).
Beyond obvious objections to the literal policing of thoughts, there is a practical problem with such laws: By the time someone's brain contains one of these illegal ideas, it's too late. They're already an extremist. The hope is that by imprisoning them for holding and expressing ideas, they won't be able to turn them into actions. But prison spreads rather than quashes radicalism, and, besides, the law hasn't worked: The people who preach and scream extremist ideas are not generally the people who shoot up public squares. And the heavy-handed surveillance needed to do all this policing of ideas has been shown in Britain to antagonize communities and drive them away from the state: In short, it has a track record of making things worse.
The second approach is to put different ideas in the minds of these vulnerable young men. This "counter-messaging" tactic is being tried by France and the United States, whose governments have produced counter-jihad videos to be promoted on YouTube, and the U.S. State Department runs a "ThinkAgain" Twitter account.
While there's nothing wrong with promoting alternatives to political extremism, there's a basic problem with using government agencies and their proxies to deliver it (Canada's C-51 also empowers our spy agencies to counter-message). By definition, guys who are vulnerable to Islamic State-type ideas are people who have lost faith in the civil society and institutions around them. Rather than building trust, many experts argue that this tactic, because it comes from the state agencies least trusted by such young men, is likely to increase isolation and enmity among many of them. They already think the government is out to get them; this proves it.
The third approach is to reduce the number of young men who are vulnerable to these ideas. While identifying the guys who might go into jihad is tough (they don't tend to fit any easy profile), two things do tend to unite those who have become extremists: Most either have spent time in the penal system, or have dropped out of school early (the two tend to go together).
Keeping people from falling out of faith with civil society is often just a matter of keeping them in school. Those Muslim minority communities with the lowest rates of extremism (such as Bangladeshis in Britain or Arab Muslims in the United States) also tend to have lower school-dropout rates. Efforts to fight membership in criminal gangs in the U.S. and right-wing radical groups in Europe (both strikingly similar to Islamic State in recruiting messages) have succeeded when they've brought down dropout rates.
In France, this approach has been at the core of the state's impressive response to the Charlie Hebdo slayings: Late last month Prime Minister Manuel Valls launched a substantial policy drive to reduce the tendency of second-generation kids to drop out of the school system (combined with some pointlessly political counter-messaging stuff about teaching secularism). Continental European schools are practically designed to encourage children of immigrants to leave at age 16; that, from what I've seen in many European cities, is what funnels them into crime and extremism and explains the higher rates there.
The Obama approach, similarly, is to build up local schools, police and communities to keep second-generation men engaged in non-extremist society. This gets mocked for being less dramatic-looking (and more expensive) than propaganda videos and police raids. But it also happens to be the only approach with a solid history of success.