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DOD ordered the military to address extremism—investigation reflects more ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

First off, disparities in military justice are completely ignored. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, Black and Latino service members were disproportionately investigated and court-martialed. Black Marines were convicted and punished at a rate five times higher than other races in the Marine Corps. 

AP’s investigation also shows that there is no designated funding to address systemic racism and no specific hate crime category. In other words, an assault is considered an assault regardless of the motivation of the crime. 

At the center of the issue is that the military doesn’t ban service members from belonging to extremist groups like the Proud Boys, Ku Klux Klan, Oath Keepers, and other right-wing or white nationalist groups. The military only prohibits them from having “active participation” in the groups—described as “publicly demonstrating or rallying, fundraising, recruiting and training members.” 

In other words, the decision about who’s an active member in a hate group is completely up to the discretion of the commander. 

“There needs to be a change in action and behaviors – elements that can’t be so easily influenced by a change in military law,″ Maj. Tyrone Collier, a judge advocate in the Marine Corps Reserve, told AP.

“Even if some legislation is passed from the highest echelons of government that says you will do this and that, will it actually get done?” Collier asked.

Racism and extremism in the military have a long and storied history starting with the official desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, but in reality it remained in many units until 1954. 

Following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Black soldiers filed complaints of white soldiers flying Confederate flags and even marching around in Klan outfits. 

On the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in Oceanside, California, just outside San Diego, white Marines openly displayed Klan affiliation in the 1970s. In 1986, according to reporting by AP, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Klanwatch Project issued one of the first of many warnings to the Department of Defense (DOD) about white supremacists in the military and implored then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to ban active duty service members from affiliation with the Klan. 

“It is simply intolerable that members of the U.S. armed forces, sworn to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States, be allowed to hold membership in an organization which seeks to overthrow the federal government through violent means,” the SPLC wrote.

Fast forward to 1995 when three white Army paratroopers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina were arrested for the murder of a Black couple, Michael James and Jackie Burden, who they shot and killed in downtown Fayetteville. An investigation found that 19 Fort Bragg soldiers were also aligned with neo-Nazi activities and were then discharged. 

Let’s not forget Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government extremist who earned a Bronze Star in Operation Desert Storm, who was responsible for the deaths of 168 people, 19 of whom were children, after he blew up a federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. 

The Pentagon promised to handle extremism within its ranks, but then claimed it was unable to find any. 

A 2005 report from the DOD entitled Screening for Potential Terrorists in the Enlisted Military Accessions Process found that despite the large number of “messageboard postings warning new recruits from revealing their extremist group associations,” the military has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy pertaining to extremism.

AP reports that in 2009, several civil rights organizations alerted then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to encourage the Obama administration to take action, but nothing was done. 

One of the few mentions regarding extremism in Biden’s new bill is regarding using social media—retweeting or liking extremist content equals advocating the ideas behind the content—but no specific extremist groups are ever named.

Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, who served as the chief prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force between 2010 and 2014, told AP that the new policies are “loosely defined,” “lack guidance,” and it remains vague how they will be enforced. 

“I understand this stuff is hard, but the like button means so many different things to different people. My main takeaway is this isn’t going to be enforceable. There’s a lot of subjectivity.” Christensen said. “I also think they (the Defense Department) are naive to think it’s a small number of service members who engage in extremist activity.”

The most damning evidence that both the DOD and the military are glacial to move on extremism comes from Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League. 

In his testimony to Congress on Feb. 11, 2020, Pitcavage cited 72 suspected white supremacists in the various branches in a three-year span, including 38 in the Army, two in the Army National Guard, four in the Navy, 19 in the Marine Corps, two in the Air Force, and one in the Coast Guard, as well as six with an indeterminate service branch. 

“There’s no safe number of extremists in the military,” Pitcavage said.

The new bill does carve out a line item to “identify members of extremist organizations in potential recruits” and it will screen recruits with “extremist ties,” but the military does not “have the capability to conduct social media screenings,” DOD officials admitted in a statement.

Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Reuben Keith Green, 64, told AP he was deeply disappointed to see that after so many years, the military is still challenged with handling racism and extremism. It’s time it addresses the “everyday racism that is based on extremist views.”

He added: “The military has let this white supremacist, racist issue fester for so long. They’ve been trying to hide the actual truth and now it’s blowing up in their faces.”

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