Members of an Ohio National Guard joint task force provide security in support of the Cleveland Police Department during ongoing protests June 6, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Ohio National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Harwood)

PERSPECTIVE: Why Law Enforcement Needs a Proactive Narrative Strategy with Protests

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Kinetic engagement often creates second-, third-, and fourth-order problems, and one of the ways it does that is by feeding into hostile narratives that are the real center of gravity of violent extremists. This is true on a global scale. That is why countries and organizations that cannot win a kinetic war still occupy the attention of multinational militaries.

If the protests around the country are not treated carefully, we run the risk of creating the same problem in the homeland. It is imperative to recognize that law enforcement is in a contest not primarily over physical territory but over hearts and minds. The effect of ideologically based violent extremists cannot be physically contained.

If law enforcement learns one thing from special operations and global counterterrorism work, it should be this: the human terrain is the center of gravity in any contest for influence. Physical terrain is only used as a sphere in which to provoke actions that will cause the unsuspecting opponent to lose public support. Experienced violent extremists are well aware that they need the support of the public. They have nothing without it.

It is therefore imperative that law enforcement make the crucial distinction between non-violent (although perhaps angry) protesters practicing their First Amendment rights and violent extremists, and then ensure that our own actions do not turn the former into the later. The actions of law enforcement function as a recruitment tool to both sides – the rule of law or violent extremism – and recruitment can go either way. That is where we either win or lose.

What we are seeing in the streets of America is a battle for influence. And if either side engages in kinetics it means that they are trailing behind the opponent. If your opponent can prod you into physical reaction, your opponent is winning. And your opponent is winning because you have been put in a reactive defensive position.

But there is a path forward, and it is called Narrative Strategy. Leading with soft power, secured by hard power, is the framework of this strategy that has proven its effectiveness in mediating conflict in war-torn countries. We need to lead with a comprehensive strategic narrative that speaks to the identity of its audience because the key terrain is the human terrain. We can counter domestic extremism with methods and tools that shape environments and affect behaviors in a proactive rather than defensive manner. We have no time to waste.

Developing a coherent strategic narrative is the best weapon to combat extremism and stem further recruitment. It is a national security imperative.

Undermining public trust in those who ensure public safety is high on the “to do” list of those forces seeking to destabilize communities. We must not fall in with that agenda by engaging in actions which do exactly that: undermine public trust. Any public safety strategy benefits from the support of the public sentiment, the civilians on the ground, and those tasked with policy decisions.

If the American public saw more images of law enforcement officers protecting non-violent protesters and engaging substantive dialogue, those images would undermine extremist messaging and recruitment. Conversely, images of law enforcement using disproportionate force on civilians provides violent extremists with exactly what they need to succeed.

Putting effort into stabilizing micro-communities while ignoring the hostile environment they are contextualized in will prove to be minimally successful. We need to focus simultaneously on the macro-American community while stabilizing micro-pockets. And a step in that direction is to win back our very contested national narratives: narratives based on constitutional principles.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and the forthcoming Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes in the role of identity in behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. Maan is also influenced by Jacques Derrida as well as Michel Foucault, as referenced in her article “Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads: Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics” (227). After establishing herself through her work on internarrative identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, further examines the role of narrative and power. Her work was also the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of internarrative identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has also been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience. In September of 2015, Maan began work on Narrative Strategies, an online blog dedicated to the application of strategic narrative to international affairs. That project formed the basis for a consultancy group of the same name, uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world. ​ ​

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