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How to Stifle Groups Like the Oath Keepers
To defeat extremist groups, we must deprive them of recruits.
When we served in the military, we confronted insurgencies that seized political power not through elections or persuasion, but with violence. With that experience, we understand the threat posed by organizations like the Oath Keepers, which played a key role in storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021 and continue to contemplate domestic violence in the United States. Insurgencies, whether their motivations are religious extremism, nationalism, or white supremacy, rely less on technology than on ideology. They need recruits to survive, and the Oath Keepers focus on recruiting veterans of America’s wars. To deprive the Oath Keepers and similar groups of members, as well as to protect our veterans, we must offer those who served community, reimagining the camaraderie we felt during our service. And we must offer purpose, putting the skills and commitment of our veterans to use in meaningful ways.
As veterans ourselves, we know why groups like the Oath Keepers look to exploit us. Everything that makes us effective in wartime—a deep camaraderie, tactical training that made us effective at reconnaissance and in battle, and organizational and leadership skills—also makes us attractive recruits for violent domestic extremists. Widespread disillusionment with a government that sent us to fight wars without victory makes us susceptible to radicalization, and the skills we bring home become potent weapons for extremism.
The founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted of seditious conspiracy in November 2022 for his role in orchestrating the January 6 insurrection. While the court sentenced him to nearly two decades in prison, the Oath Keepers’ nonprofit arm enjoys federal tax-exempt status, supposedly to “give veterans an opportunity for continued involvement in community service.”
The courts require that the IRS consider the educational methods rather than the constitutionally protected views of 501(c)(3) organizations, so the government tends to tread carefully when contemplating any revocation of tax-exempt status. Groups like Integrity First for America have instead used civil litigation to bankrupt extremist groups and cripple their ability to grow.
Far from being a public-interested charity, the Oath Keepers is an extremist group that targets military servicemembers and veterans for recruitment into their web of misinformation, conspiracy, and violence. Their name hints at their practice of preying on veterans and law enforcement: According to their warped world view, those who join their ranks are “keeping the oath” they took to protect and defend the Constitution.
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Kathleen Belew’s history of white supremacism and domestic violence, Bring the War Home, details how anti-democratic sentiments and racist violence have followed soldiers home from war zones. Membership in extremist organizations has surged in the aftermath of foreign conflicts. In the new documentary, “Against All Enemies,” in which one of us appears and the other produced, Belew cautions that we don’t yet know what will happen after the longest wars in our history.
The ranks of violent white supremacist organizations are still swollen from the last time large numbers of disillusioned soldiers, particularly draftees, returned from abroad after the Vietnam War. Since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the deadliest attack on American soil between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and the act of a Gulf War veteran, this movement has decentralized and atomized its leadership. Only a few actions, like the 2017 rally in Charlottesville or the January 6 insurrection, have brought leaders and followers into the open, where their crimes against their fellow citizens and our country can be witnessed. Most of the time, these movements build on the fringes of social media and in secret chatrooms. They leverage technology to prey on the frustration of servicemembers and veterans, communicate with new recruits, and garner support. Mainstream media that echo their claims, grievances, and aspirations help them attract new adherents.
Last month, President Biden referred to white supremacist extremism as the greatest terrorist threat to our homeland. Yet we have not mustered the kind of response we did when a previous president declared Islamic terrorism a similar threat to the country.
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As veterans who defended the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, we saw firsthand how our country responded to the threat of international terrorism with vigor, if not always with circumspection and wisdom. Our response to the threat of domestic terrorism has so far not matched the energy of the post-9/11 period, nor its unity.
As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the easiest way to defeat terrorists is to prevent normal people from becoming terrorists in the first place. It starts with engaging with those who are at risk of recruitment into extremism. Young adults who are indoctrinated online, angry servicemembers, and lonely veterans must understand the choices they face and the consequences of those choices.
We also need to address extremism among active-duty forces. Last month, Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, who espoused racist, antisemitic, and violent views, was charged with leaking classified intelligence that put America’s security at risk. The Department of Defense ordered an immediate review of how classified intelligence is secured, but the Pentagon should also focus on countering Teixeira’s kind of extremism in the ranks. His crimes are more evidence that extremism harms our national security, yet political pressure squelched the group that was investigating extremism within the military.
At the same time, we must provide them a sense of purpose and community as strong as that offered by extremist groups. We need to keep the commitments we have made to our veterans and help address the injuries—physical, psychological, and moral—that came with their service. Today, veterans struggle with the broken promises to Afghans who served by our side as translators, guides, and allies for nearly 20 years. Keeping our nation’s word to them would go far toward keeping our colleagues in the fold.
We must also all work harder to find useful, productive roles for veterans in civilian and civil life. While the general public respects the military, they tend to be unfamiliar with it and those who serve in it, which exacerbates the tensions between civilian and military life that makes “reentry” so hard for veterans. There’s only so much the government can do to ease those tensions, but average citizens can do a lot to make the veterans in their communities feel welcome, valued, and understood.
Disrupting extremists like the Oath Keepers demands more than courtroom victories, though those are important. Together, and only together, can we stem the growing tide of extremism by depriving them of the manpower needed to commit their seditious acts.