Federal government warned last spring of spike in violence and extremism during pandemic: memo

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As the wave of COVID-19 has ebbed, violence is on the rise in the United States.

Federal authorities saw this surge in violence spurred by COVID hardship – even before the pandemic was in full swing.

An internal Department of Homeland Security memo obtained by ABC News from the spring of 2020 warned that the emotional, mental and financial strain exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic combined with social isolation – especially if prolonged – may ” increase the vulnerability of certain citizens to be mobilized to violence.

“The Covid-19 epidemic and the government’s response to it have heightened concerns that could accelerate mobilization to violence with extended periods of social distancing,” the note read, noting that such isolation is a “known risk factor” for inciting violent extremism, as well as “financial stress and work disruptions, including unemployment and unexpected layoffs” also “on the rise”.

Even as the nation and the world stalled, the note, which went unreported before, urged the agency’s partners to develop a “plan of action” for when communities begin to resume operations. “normal,” predicting “increased mass gatherings, combined with long social isolation and other life stressors,” can create environments agitated by COVID and ripe for violent upheaval.

When contacted by ABC News about these early warnings, DHS declined to comment.

While a provisional reopening was underway in May, DHS Secretary Mayorkas established the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships and a domestic terrorism branch within the ministry’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. , aimed at strengthening the ministry’s “whole-of-society approach” to countering extremism and other targeted violence in the United States

Attorney General Merick Garland announced a “renewed commitment and multi-fronted effort by the Department of Justice to reduce violent crime through community engagement, targeted enforcement and interagency collaboration.”

Violent crime has “increased since the start of the pandemic over a year ago,” President Biden said in late June, announcing a series of actions and federal support to target gun violence.

“And as we come out of this pandemic with the country reopening, the traditional summer peak may even be more pronounced than it usually would be,” Biden said.

Pandemic a “tipping point”

It wasn’t just federal officials who sounded the alarm last year. Doctors – including psychologists – say pressure from the pandemic can exacerbate acts of violence and aggression.

“COVID has been a tipping point,” Dr. Aimee Harris-Newon, a clinical psychologist in Chicago who focuses on wellness and preventative care. “Along with too much chronic stress, the impact of all this trauma… now it’s all starting to leak.”

And some experts say psychological stressors were already on the rise before the pandemic.

“We were already in a weakened state when the pandemic struck – class divisions, overt racism, partisanship, a really poor social support infrastructure – so if you think about the effect of the pandemic on an ‘epidemic’ of shootings – it’s like America’s immune system was already suppressed, ”Jeffrey Butts, director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Center for Research and Evaluation, told ABC News.

“The social, psychological and economic distress in our country has exceeded people’s ability to cope, and there has not been enough support,” added Dr Marni Chanoff, psychiatrist and founder of the wellness group. integrative at McLean Hospital. “There is no road map on how to navigate this time.”

“COVID has increased the volume”

When Mohammed Abdelmagied heard a loud bang near his Times Square kebab and hot dog stand on the last Sunday in June, he thought it was firecrackers – someone celebrating an early July 4th, or maybe the release of COVID-19.

It wasn’t: it was gunfire: something he didn’t expect in the area where he worked for 13 years – a heavily guarded place where gunfire was relatively rare.

“I turn my face to the square, I heard it all but saw nothing,” Abdelmagied, 46, told ABC News.

Two shootings in two months at the Carrefour du monde have brought a flood of police officers to the region, in a city which until recently had become a model of security in large cities. These flares weren’t just in New York, nor were they just left within city limits across the country.

Major American cities have been rocked by waves of gun violence in recent months, part of an already upward trend that did not stop during the lockdown, but became more visible as the country reopens.

“Shortly after a resumption of ‘normal’ life,” the spring 2020 memo reads, tensions already present, and then exacerbated during the pandemic, could provide an opportune moment for violent extremism and violent attacks.

Not counting suicides, more than 19,400 people died as a result of gun violence in 2020, up from around 15,440 in 2019, and well above the rates in previous years, according to Gun Violence Archive, a research group for the purpose. non-profit.

In 2021, there have already been more than 10,000 gun violence deaths – with almost six months to go.

“Covid turned the volume up” and fomented a disintegration of social bonds and norms, Butts said.

“Then we see some of these horrific shootings – the true scale of the increase is undeniable,” Butts added.

It’s not just gun violence on the rise: Aggression on planes has reached new heights as well – and not just more flight disruptions, but also more violent.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a record number of potential violations of federal law in unruly passenger cases – identifying more than 490 cases this year where passengers have potentially broken the law by “interfering with a member’s duties. crew”. This is more than double the number of cases reviewed in 2020; and more than two and a half times the amount in 2019.

Airlines have now reported more than 3,200 disruptive passenger reports to the FAA this year; the vast majority – over 2,400 – are people who have refused to wear a mask.

In an assessment of threats to internal security published in October 2020, authorities also highlighted concerns over the impact of COVID-19, where “violent anti-government and anti-authority extremists could be motivated to carry out attacks in response to a perceived violation of freedoms and government overreach as all levels of government seek to limit the spread of the coronavirus which has caused a global pandemic. “

Isolation effect

While social media has helped maintain personal connections during quarantine, it can also be quite alienating, experts say, and offers an opportunity for radicalization online.

In addition, job loss in the event of a pandemic can be both a heavy financial and psychological burden.

And the unprecedented loss of life and loved ones to the virus, with more than 600,000 deaths in the United States alone, has taken an indescribable toll, experts say.

Isolating factors like these may increase the risk of engaging – or attempting to engage – in violent extremism, according to the DHS memo.

“These risks are likely to become more pervasive as public health measures are expanded – or the time to maintain social distancing increases,” the note warned, stressing the “need to build social bridges and connections for prevent social isolation, which in turn reduces the risk of radicalization leading to violence.

Social distancing has been key to stopping the spread of the virus – but after more than a year of fear that anyone would be close to potentially infected, experts point out that self-preservation may have amplified feelings of mistrust in our lives. communities.

“Someone coming towards you on the sidewalk, and you would think, you sprayed your droplets on me!” said Butts. “People were scared. More than before, we had to see others as a potential lethal threat.”

Americans are also still in economic and emotional shock from COVID-19, despite the tide of infection, and signs of improvement in the job market, according to a Pew poll this spring; those most vulnerable to the virus have also paid the price for its financial fallout.

Break the cycle

Tensions boiling across the United States have fueled what is becoming a vicious cycle that is difficult to break; experts fear that residual anxiety and collective trauma may outlive the pandemic itself.

“That kind of mental and emotional wear and tear doesn’t go away,” Butts continued. “Any resulting damage will escalate for a while. This is a huge concern.”

As the anger of some Americans over the state of the nation diminishes from what it was during the COVID outbreak of summer 2020 – experts call for vigilance as to what this rage is in recoil could leave in its wake.

Even as the nation prepares to celebrate July 4 and some measure of freedom from COVID, federal officials are worried about the possibility of terror and domestic violence, including mass shootings, as the summer season progresses. 2021 is in full swing.

Whatever the new normal is, Chanoff notes that it will take time to get there.

“The human mind is resilient and the human capacity to heal is enormous,” Chanoff said. “But without support, I think these things are likely to continue to increase.”

ABC News’ Josh Margolin, Aaron Katersky, Pierre Thomas and Sony Salzman contributed to this report.


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