House Armed Services Committee members say “extremism” in the U.S. military is either a looming danger to our national security or an overblown fear that is being used to attack conservative and religious servicemembers, depending on which members you ask.
That committee explored this controversial topic in a March 24 hearing. Democrats are more worried about extremist threats within the military in light of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which led to the arrest of 34 veterans and three reservists.
Meanwhile, Republicans heavily discounted the threat and said the involvement of some veterans at a single event is no reason to assume that the military is infested with extremists who want to overthrow the government.
Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) did acknowledge that whatever step Congress takes on this issue, it risks over overstepping. He said there is now worry on both sides – while some fear that white supremacy or anti-government sentiments are festering in the military, others are worried that Congress might go too far and create a “thought police” that will try to look into the souls of our servicemembers and kick out those who fall short of perfection as defined by the federal government.
Early debates such as these are usually all engine and no rudder, but there were some substantive takeaways from the hearing.
From the Democratic side:
- Smith stressed several times that simply holding a contrary political view does not make someone an “extremist.” But he did say to servicemembers who believe the U.S. government is not legitimate, “you have no business serving in our military, and you should get out now.”
- The two witnesses called by Democrats focused their remarks almost exclusively on anti-government extremists and white supremacy as the two forms of extremism that need to be rooted out of the military. One of those witnesses, Dr. Audrey Cronin of American University, said education is needed across the services branches to keep servicemembers from falling prey to online extremist propaganda. She called for a “digital literacy” program to teach the ranks how to discern fact from fiction on the Internet.
- The other witness, Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said DOD needs to prohibit servicemembers from joining extremist groups, and immediately rename the 10 Army bases named for Confederate leaders. The SPLC is a left-leaning group whose own former head of its internal “Intelligence Project” once said, “We are focused, whether people like it or not, on the radical right. We believe that it’s uniquely threatening to democracy.”
- Cronin said DOD should make efforts to eliminate extremism from the ranks in ways that are consistent with the First Amendment. But she also suggested that DOD should closely examine social media accounts and other public material for “key words and memes” that might show a servicemember is an extremist and look to remove them.
From the Republican side:
- The top Republican on the committee, Mike Rogers (R-AL), said Republicans are also interested in removing anyone from the military who uses or supports violence against others. But Rogers said extremist behavior is prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is already being used to remove servicemembers exhibiting unacceptable behavior. “This is far from the largest issue facing our military,” he said.
- The lone Republican witness, Michael Berry of the right-leaning First Liberty Institute, said the vast majority of servicemembers benefit from hearing different views in the military, and that their First Amendment rights should not be put at risk in the name of solving a problem that is already being handled.
- Rogers argued that groups like the SPLC believe people with strong religious convictions are a higher risk of becoming “extremist,” and warned that following this advice would be telling those most dedicated to military service that they are no longer wanted. Another Republican, Austin Scott of Georgia, said the SPLC recently designated former Trump administration Cabinet Member Ben Carson as an extremist, and said Democrats should not be taking advice from this group.
- Mike Gallagher (R-WI) warned that pretending the military has an extremist problem without evidence will only undermine trust in the military. Berry agreed, and said if trust falls, American families will be more reluctant to send their sons and daughters into the service.