A real hope for changing the extremists

The recent mass shootings have terrified the nation. It’s not just the ferocity of the attacks. It’s the randomness of the victims, whether elementary school children or elderly women shopping at the neighborhood supermarket. People doing normal things, the things all of us do, find themselves attacked by a heavily armed man with a powerful, rapidly firing gun.

The shootings have reminded us that we could all be their targets. This is especially true when even the most disturbed and the most extreme among us have easy access to weapons.


The danger doesn’t just come from loners like the killers in Buffalo and Uvalde. Some of the most disturbing threats in our society come from disaffected and violent young men whose alienation makes them prime recruits by extremist political or religious movements. Social media encourages those who see no other answer to their grievances except violence, aimed at various groups in particular and society in general.

Even before the antisemitic attack on the Tree of Life, this region was fertile soil for anti-immigrant and racist sentiment. The FBI has identified Pittsburgh as a “hub” for extremist groups. The extremist movement is as strong here as any place in the country.

A Berlin-based nonprofit that has had much success in de-radicalizing disaffected young men on the far right as well as committed Islamic extremists, recently announced that its flagship American operation will be located in Pittsburgh. The Violence Prevention Network believes it can deprogram those attracted to groups like the Sovereign Citizens and Patriot Front.

According to Michele Leaman, a director at VPN, the key to the group’s success has been its telephone and digital hotline operation that helps friends and family members of potential extremists. The network advises them to deepen their connections with the at-risk person, not cut them off. If the at-risk person escalates their behavior, the group works with law enforcement to monitor their activity. It also trains law enforcement in what to look for and how to deal with extremists.

VPN also works in the prison system. Having worked with over 800 far-rightists and more than 1,000 Islamists in German prisons, it claims a recidivism rate of only 13%, compared with 41.5% for other German programs.

So far, VPN has secured $100,000 in funding to operate in Pittsburgh, but that is far short of what is required. The network will set up hotlines to start and plans to hire at least 15 staff specialists to work with those being radicalized.

If what VPN proposes to do in the Pittsburgh area works here, it can probably work anywhere in America. It’s one of the most practical and most hopeful signs that America may be able to change the young men who have made so many Americans so afraid.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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