One vigil, divisible, with liberty and justice for some

Vigil-goers carry candles to commemorate Colorado Springs and San Bernardino gun violence victims.  Click here for slideshow.

Last Friday night, a decent, heartfelt response to the horror and grief of the San Bernardino mass killings was transformed into a pep rally for a disquieting information gathering and intervention program — connecting clergy and law enforcement — called “the Montgomery County Model,” as well as that program’s main proponents: chief architect Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi and the little-known Montgomery County government-clergy alliance she co-chairs, the “Faith Community Working Group” (FCWG).

The vigil, organized by the Council on American Islamic Relations and hosted by Silver Spring’s Muslim Community Center, was supposed to simply “remember victims of gun violence and to condemn the recent mass shootings in Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Bernardino, Calif.”

That’s certainly what most vigil-goers had in mind.  For my part, I also just wanted to stand by a community I have some friends in; the Washington Post article “After Paris and California attacks, U.S. Muslims feel intense backlash” described American Muslims worried to send their children to school, nearly being run down by car drivers, or finding bullet-riddled Korans on their doorsteps.  CAIR outreach organizer Zainab Chaudry had also invited clergymembers of many faiths to stand together with the Muslim community, and to their credit many answered the call in just that spirit.

But starting with keynote speaker Rev. Mansfield Kaseman — “Interfaith Community Liaison” of Montgomery County’s Office of Community Partnerships  —  and continued by some of the following speakers, it became clear that a second agenda was also being pursued: touting the FCWG, touting the “Montgomery County Model,” and touting Ms. Mirahmadi, president of “World Organization for Resource Development and Education” (WORDE) and its Montgomery Village-based International Cultural Center (ICC).

What exactly is the “Montgomery County Model“?  This WORDE description starts off as a typical recitation of nonprofit sector catchphrases, but soon veers off into startling territory:

Our Four Part Model
ENGAGE: The model builds community resilience by incorporating a wide range of stakeholders, including faith community leaders, public officials, law enforcement officers, educators, social service providers, and civic activists. Together, they create a network of trusted adults who can intervene in the lives of troubled individuals.
EDUCATE: A cornerstone of the program is specialized training and community workshops that generate awareness of the various public safety threats, including radicalization and recruitment to violent extremism.
CONNECT: Stakeholders are connected with public and private resources that can provide mental health counseling and other direct services for vulnerable members of the community.
INTERVENE: Interventions are facilitated by professionals who are trained to reduce potential risk factors of violent extremist behavior, using a culturally competent, trauma-informed framework. The interventions can be part of a prevention scheme or set up as a diversion program in lieu of incarceration.

A lengthier description by WORDE — originally downloaded from the Department of Homeland Security — notes that the program receives both county and Department of Justice funding. WORDE also acknowledges that the whole thing is about the Muslim community — they’re just trying to “reduce the stigma” by involving other faiths too:

The Montgomery County Model (MCM) is an initiative developed by WORDE, in partnership with the Montgomery County Police Department. […] The MCM is best described as an early-warning system targeted towards the intervention and prevention of violent extremism through four interrelated parts. First is engaging and convening a wide range of public and private stakeholders, which includes diverse faith community leaders, public officials, law enforcement officers, educators, social service providers, and county agencies. This inclusive approach is specifically designed to reduce the stigma on Muslim communities by including a broad spectrum of other partners.”

To be fair, there’s nothing (so far) to conclusively demonstrate a particular focus of the MCM program on the Montgomery County Muslim community.  In videotaped remarks (at the same Muslim Community Center in September 2013), Montgomery County Police Chief Manger strenuously denied that’s all the program is for. But to be just as fair, MCM was developed in response to the Boston Marathon attacks, and Dr. Mirahmadi’s bio suggests a career in counterterrorism within Muslim communities, whether at home or abroad.

Who spots potential bad guys? The same bunch: “this wider circle of trusted adults to recognize the warning signs of an at risk individual so they can refer him/her for an intervention before he/she turns to violence.” What happens then? “…public and private stakeholders, as well as the general public, can refer at-risk individuals for an intervention.” Yet another description states that we hope to create a reliable and effective relationship between government/law enforcement and the community experts [social workers, psychologists, mentors/teachers, and clergy] to intervene in cases where mentoring or counseling could deter an individual from the path of violence.”

FCWG clergy member speaks

So what’s the problem?  Surely it’s great to spot “vulnerable” souls in our midst and put them back on the straight and narrow path to success?

Without knowing more specifics, it’s hard to say — and the opacity of this “public-private partnership” program seems a problem in its own right.  But potentially, here are a few concerns:

  • Distrust of formerly trusted clergy: Congregant A might have reported concerns about congregant B to Imam X before the program; now she might not, for fear of getting B tangled up with the police or FBI.
  • Unwarranted consequences, lack of due process: Do people entering the intervention pipeline (WORDE’s “Crossroads” program) simultaneously enter law enforcement watch lists? Who decides? Do they find themselves unable to board a plane later on?
  • Chilling/sanctioning of protected speech: Imagine congregant C is upset about, say, Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, and says an angry word or two online — noted by Reverend Y, who passes on the information … which ultimately lands in the database of homeland security agency Z, never to be expunged. Thanks to the “Montgomery County Model,” C’s protected speech might be turned into a life-changing black mark because of Y’s misjudgment.

These aren’t theoretical concerns.  In a September 12 article this year, Al-Jazeera’s Aaron Miguel Cantu reported:

Local police officers, meanwhile, view MCM as a way to gather information on security threats and share it with state and federal officials, according to [Assistant Police Chief Darryl] McSwain. Citizens with whom police have cultivated relationships serve as a “conduit of information” on safety concerns, he said, and schools and facilities such as the cultural center provide “access points” for officers to connect with locals. Those security tips and alerts are then passed on to federal agencies through fusion centers, the information-sharing hubs created by the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. At each fusion center, local law enforcement can file intelligence reports and, upon review, DHS can publish them for internal use. A 2012 Senate investigation of fusion centers found that DHS declined to publish nearly a third of the submitted reports because they either lacked useful information about terror threats or potentially constituted a violation of citizens’ civil liberties.

Whether or not that bothers you, this might: this kind of program has yet to be shown to do any good in the first place, at least in reducing terrorism.

Vigil-goers raise candles symbolizing each of the lives lost in the San Bernardino and Colorado attacks.

The “Montgomery County Model” appears to be another instance of so-called “CVE” (Countering Violent Extremism) programs “aimed at “identifying risk factors that contribute to violent extremism in communities in the United States and potential remedies for Government and non-government institutions.”  As a letter co-signed by 48 civil rights groups including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Defending Dissent Foundation points out:

…there is no evidentiary basis for concluding that these programs contribute to reducing terrorism, which is their stated goal. While Obama Administration officials have tried to distance U.S. programs from the British CVE program, Prevent, the similarities between the two are obvious. Prevent is hardly a successful template. It has been widely criticized for alienating the very communities it was seeking to influence and for lacking any means of measuring effectiveness. […]

Moreover, CVE programs ignore social science research in positing that the adoption or expression of extreme or “radical” ideas lead to violence, and that there are observable “indicators” to identify those “vulnerable”to radicalization, or “at risk” of being recruited by terrorist groups. Despite years of federally-funded efforts, researchers have not developed reliable criteria that can be used to predict who will commit a terrorist act.

Several of us challenged Rev. Kaseman after the vigil with some of these concerns.  He laughed, and sought to assure us no one wanted anyone’s civil liberties violated.  Perhaps not — and yet even with the best of intentions he and FCWG may be doing just that …and ultimately burning bridges rather than building them.  We don’t know for certain what all FCWG, MCPD, and allied law enforcement agencies are doing together under the “Montgomery County Model.” We do know we want to find out.

Meanwhile, it’s all but tragic that a vigil about solidarity with the victims of two mass shootings, and with a community unfairly smeared by association, became a recruiting stop for a questionable program — developed in no small part to put that very community under special scrutiny.

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One Response to One vigil, divisible, with liberty and justice for some

  1. Pingback: Analysis touting prototype MoCo “Countering Violent Extremism” program flawed, expert says | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

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