The deadly Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol on January 6 was at once a literal and figurative assault on America’s democratic government. As tragic as the attack was, it shined a light on a growing, pernicious threat that could one day explode into something far more destructive and consequential. That threat is extremism in the U.S. military, and the Biden administration is acting swiftly to stomp it out.
When an urgent matter arises that affects the military, there is a procedure in place called a “stand down” that requires everyone to stop and focus their attention on the problem. In early February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day stand down for service members of all ranks to discuss the threat of white supremacy and other forms of extremism.
Now that the stand down has ended and the results are under review, Austin is wasting no time pursuing additional steps to rid the military of extremist ideology. The whole point, as Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters on Friday, is that we should “expect that anybody who raises that right hand and takes that oath, and joins the military… that they are going to live by that oath.”
First, the Pentagon will update the definition of “prohibited extremist activities” to cover activities service members undertake through the use of social media and other networks. Prospective recruits will be required to answer screening questions about possible extremist behavior and risk punishment for “demonstrably false answers” that lead to “fraudulent enlistment.”
Second, the Pentagon will offer training for retiring service members so that they can better identify situations in which they might be approached by extremist organizations for recruitment. Veterans would then be advised on how to report any such contact to the government.
Finally, Austin commissioned a Pentagon study run by a “countering extremism working group” to learn how widespread this problem is. This effort will likely result in changes to the military’s legal code, improved methods of tracking suspicious behavior, and conducting more effective background checks that incorporate social media, according to a memo Austin sent on Friday to military leaders.
The late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes once wrote, “The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.” As Austin is focusing his spotlight on rooting out extremism from the U.S. military and making America safer, he is quickly proving himself to be the perfect Defense Secretary for these unusually challenging times.