My father used to have on his bookshelf a volume titled “To Fulfill These Rights,” the report of the 1966 White House conference on race in America – an event in which he participated. When in the proper mood, he would page through it, pointing out how few of the many recommendations ever became law. Big meetings, he said, hardly ever changed anything. Too many egos, too many agendas, too much talk. The slow, steady work behind the scenes was what mattered.
I rather suspect that this week’s White House summit on violent extremism will be further proof of my father’s wisdom. It’s difficult to imagine that another big meeting will move things terribly far along. As the estimable Daniel Byman of Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution reminded us just last week, nobody really knows what causes people to turn to the path of radical violence – and so, in a sense, the Barack Obama administration is trying to build a conference around a phenomenon that is simply not well understood.
Moreover, although many in the news media seem to have forgotten, we have been here before – and recently. In 2012, to great fanfare, the U.S. State Department led the way in establishing the International Center for Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism. The center, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, is supposed to be doing … well, pretty much what the White House conference is supposed to be doing. Here’s what the State Department said in 2012:
“The Center’s mandate will focus on three core areas:
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“1) Training: Providing government and non-governmental stakeholders with the necessary training and practical tools to design and implement effective programs and policies to counter violent extremism in all of its forms;
“2) Dialogue: Providing a dedicated platform to facilitate dialogue among community leaders, teachers and other educators as well as relevant national and local actors involved in CVE; and
“3) Research: Conducting and commissioning research to gain a deeper understanding of the drivers of violent extremism, and which approaches are effective in countering it.”
Here’s the description by the White House of this week’s conference:
“Through presentations, panel discussions, and small group interactions, participants will build on local, state, and federal government; community; and international efforts to better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad.”
Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that this is exactly the course that the center in Abu Dhabi is supposed to have been pursuing these past two years.
Lots of serious scholars have tackled the problem of terrorism, and few pretend to have found the answers. There is good reason to be skeptical that this week’s White House conference will add much to the general fund of information. My point isn’t that the politicians and activists who will dominate the dialogue don’t care sincerely about the issue. My point is that big public conferences – particularly those convened in Washington – rarely change very much. If you don’t believe me, take my father’s advice: pick up a copy of “To Fulfill These Rights” and judge for yourself.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.