On January 4, 2011, 21 year old Emerson Begolly was arrested in his mother’s car on charges of carrying a loaded gun1 and biting two FBI agents when they tried to question him; his defense claims that he has autism and the agents opening the car door and reaching for him caused his biting response that drew blood. Mr Begolly was being investigated by the FBI due to his online postings and social network alliances that indicated he was a Nazi-turned-radical-extremist with a worrying interest in killing people. Reminiscent of the 2002 movie “Minority Report”2 that depicts a world where a “PreCrime” police unit exists to stop crimes before they happen, the FBI is now in the impossible position of prosecuting a man for a potential crime that he was fantasizing about committing.
Whether he is eventually charged and convicted on terrorism-related offences will be determined by the courts, but what is hard to ignore is the need for “deradicalizing” Mr Begolly and others like him. Preventing extremists from becoming operational is better for our society than having to deal with the consequences once people are committed to violence. Intervention and rehabilitation programs have been known to succeed in other countries, even with hardened criminals, and can do the same here.
There is an assumption that any rehab program would necessarily include religion, and the separation of religion and state is the reason our government cannot get involved; however this should not mean there is no role for the government in rehabilitation efforts. While they should not be teaching or advocating versions of any particular religion, they can certainly play a part in encouraging public/private partnerships with psychologists, religious clergy, families and communities. The model can be similar to the way many churches are involved in prisoner re-entry, safe havens for youth leaving gangs and refugee resettlement programs. Partnerships such as these would help strengthen the relationships between the American Muslim community and law enforcement, and create a more trusted environment for community policing.
In an ideal world, when a case like Mr Begolly shows up on the law enforcement radar, it would be better if he is counseled away from his warped world view as the first step; arrests and jail time should be our last resort and used only in cases where it is clear that the extremist is operational and planning an attack.