by Dr. Craig McCann
I am increasingly concerned at the rate at which the so-called “CVE field” is being infiltrated by activists describing themselves as “Anti-Fascists” who advocate for committing criminal offences in furtherance of their opposition to the radical right. This has exploded since the riot that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th 2021, for which a large number of criminal investigations are still ongoing.
As someone who has spent more than a decade delivering and studying state responses to counter the radical right, as well as other forms of terrorism, I feel compelled to challenge the implied narrative that the only way to oppose the radical right is by emulating their tactics.
One recent example from late 2021 was an interview in which the lack of progress with engagement and the establishment of dialogue with those on the radical right is highlighted and instead the approach of “brass knuckling up and flattening the nose of a Proud Boy” is advocated. Where to start? I have had very similar conversations with people who have become so jaded by their interactions with the radical right and analysis of content online that they have adopted the view that if you can’t beat them join them. This is also wrong. Incidentally, the issues of safety and mental wellbeing of those studying the radical right was covered in a recent CARR ‘Right Rising’ podcast.
Firstly, I don’t trust those identifying so passionately as “Anti-Fascists” to know how the radical right differs from the ‘regular right’. Their grievances against the status quo run wild and it is often difficult to identify a coherent strand of thinking, other than anger. The largely ignored Antifa protests which have led to large scale disorder, criminal damage and violence in Portland, Oregon is a demonstration of where the wisdom of the mob can lead. Advocating for street violence is a messy business and one in which you surrender all vestiges of the moral high ground.
Secondly, I cannot get behind the idea of “brass knuckling up and punching a Proud Boy” as an effective means of responding to the radical right. Exactly the opposite is the case. Violence begets violence. We have seen this with street-based protest movements where groups of diametrically opposed people spoiling for a fight repeatedly converge. Many years ago, we spoke of cumulative extremism in relation to the relationship between Islamist and radical right groups. Now we have the scenario where it is the radical left who have replaced the Islamists. And I’d argue they’re doing a much better job of driving people to the radical right than Islamists ever did. Extremist groups don’t exist in a vacuum and yet a dangerous narrative is setting in, that the activities of diametrically opposed groups can be divorced from one another when being analysed in the sterile environment of a think tank or library. But we know this to be untrue, as the literature on cumulative extremism makes clear.
I also can’t help but feel that those most vociferously advocating for violence against those they perceive to be ‘Nazis’ would not be capable of punching someone else in the face. Rather, they are content to angrily encourage others to do their dirty work for them. These are not good faith actors. Beware those who are adding kindling to the fire in order to keep it burning. More often than not they have a book to sell or a consultancy service to promote where they get to play both arsonist and firefighter. Dare I say it, if someone on the radical right of the equation so openly advocated for punching members of Antifa in the face, they would be accused of radicalising people and inciting violence. This is rank hypocrisy, and it needs to be called out.
Equally culpable are those researchers, activists and commentators providing cover for this position by looking the other way when it comes to violence propagated by “the Left” as opposed to “the Right”. In positioning themselves in opposition to the radical right, some find themselves unable to challenge the worst excesses of groups on the radical left, for fear of weakening the collective stance against the fascists. Without this internal check, this could well spiral out of control. My position is clear. No-one advocating for violence should not be given a pass, regardless of your political persuasion.
Also, would these very same people advocate for “brass knuckling up and flattening the nose of an Islamist”? Terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the motivation. And yet, when I reflect on the depressingly muted response to the murder of Sir David Amess MP by a suspected Islamist terrorist, it is clear that there are many who find it more comfortable to oppose some forms of extremism over others.
We won’t get there overnight. Solutions take time, energy and patience. For the militant “Anti-Fascists” this isn’t good enough. If you advocate for anything that takes longer than the instant gratification of punching someone in the face, you’re an apologist for the radical right. Just look at the Twitter thread where the rights and wrongs of punching Nazis is debated. Its difficult not to read things like this and to feel sad that those who peddle in grievance and hatred have found their utopia in the click-chasing zero sum game of social media.
But we should not give in to despair, to this sense of helplessness. Those of us who want a better tomorrow and not to simply prolong the divisiveness we see everywhere, must use our voices to make the case that yes, there are bad people out there, but they are not nearly as numerous as some would have you believe. I strongly believe in bridging divides, and I’ve seen the impact of building relationships across communities, challenging stereotypes and over time drawing support away from the extremes. This approach requires a fortitude beyond the grasp of those seeking instant gratification, quick fixes, and the temporary euphoria of a viral tweet.
To those who advocate for violence against those you oppose, take a good look in the mirror, for you may have become that which you hate.
© Craig McCann 2022
About the author:
Dr. Craig McCann is an independent specialist adviser and researcher. As the Director of S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. (Strategic Preventative Expertise to Counter Terrorism Risks using Upstream Measures) Universal Ltd. he provides consultative services for domestic clients and international development programmes with an emphasis on preventative counter terrorism strategy and delivery. He also writes, advises, lectures and provides commentary on the U.K. Prevent strategy, de-radicalisation / disengagement programming, online approaches to counter terrorism and responses to right wing extremism.