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 HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. 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.

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