Baby Steps

Cryptome recently linked to a DHS publication on domestic extremism that kind of made me lol when I first saw it. It’s not that domestic extremism is a laughing matter or anything, and objectively I’m pleased that domestic extremists are once again getting the attention they deserve in law-enforcement circles.

No, the problem is that this publication – the “Domestic Extremist Lexicon” – is just kind of staggeringly stupid, because it doesn’t cover anything that’s really useful to the intended audience.

A book I recently read defined “research” as a three-pronged method: Something that is purposeful, conducted with a specific objective in mind; something that is performed systematically; and something that contributed either new knowledge, or new interpretations of old knowledge.

Presumably, this lexicon was created with a purpose – to serve as a reference to law enforcement, according to the introduction. (Or more likely to get DHS and the rest of the intelligence community “on the same page”, and using certain terms with codified, unified meanings.) Was it performed systematically? Hard to say, but my gut feeling is probably not. Does it contribute anything new? Not a bit.

The biggest problem I have with this document are as follows:

1, Much of it is staggeringly obvious.
2, Even for what it is, it’s glaringly incomplete.
3, It’s not a lexicon, but actually a taxonomy.
4, It lacks the detail required to actually be useful.

I’ll run through these in order:

Most of the contents of this paper are staggeringly obvious. “(U) black power: (U//FOUO) A term used by black separatists to describe their pride in and the perceived superiority of the black race.” Yeah, you think? “(U) hate groups: (U//FOUO) A term most often used to describe white supremacist groups. It is occasionally used to describe other racist extremist groups.” Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Even supposing that this paper really serves merely to codify language to be used by government boffins, there are some annoyingly glaring omissions. There’s a fairly obvious definition of “single-issue extremist group”, which is good to know… but no mention of what the companion term for all the other extremist groups would be. Poly-issue? Multi-issue? Broad-issue? Multi-interest? I’m glad DHS singled out (no pun intended) single-issue extremists for attention, but as someone who writes about domestic extremism a lot, it’d be nice to know what the approved term for everyone else is, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. Likewise, there’s a pretty decent definition of “green anarchism”, but no mention of “red anarchism”, and definitions of animal-rights and environmental extremism, but no mention of their less-extreme fellows. (In other words, if you’re going to define who and what environmental extremists are, it’d be helpful, I think, to define who and what the far-less-troublesome environmental activists are. Compare-and-contrast, and all that.)

Quite aside from all that, though, there are other huge omissions. If you’re creating a “lexicon”, why not throw in extremist vocabulary as well? (Obviously, because that would be useful…) You know… What “RAHOWA” means. What the “fourteen words” are. What “one percenter”, or “consulta”, or “sleeping dragon” mean. What “red, yellow, and green actions” are. Stuff like that. Stuff that isn’t immediately obvious.

Next, the “lexicon”… isn’t. A “lexicon” is a “vocabulary”, and this document isn’t one. Rather, it’s a “taxonomy”, which you can learn the definition of here. I don’t want to be all grammar-nazi or anything, but if you’re going to call something a lexicon, it’s painfully and woefully ironic when it isn’t. (lol, lexicon FAIL, lol…) Please, DHS, spend some of the taxpayers’ money on a couple of dictionaries…

Additionally, this document lacks the detail I think it needs to really be useful. Put more bluntly, give examples, damnit. Mention that the “Christian Identity” movement includes the Aryan Nations, among other groups, or that “Black Nationalism” includes the Nation of Islam. Mention that some of these groups – like white supremacists, to give one example – maintain strong ties with like-minded groups and individuals overseas.

Lastly, as a closing note, while I’m glad that DHS are paying attention to domestic extremism, this taxonomy is six years too late. If you’re going to codify language, as this document supposedly does, the time to do so is very, very early on, so that everyone is “on the same page” right from the start. What DHS have done, by waiting until 2009 to arbitrarily declare the “official” meaning of all these words and phrases, is to potentially screw over and confuse anyone who might want or need to refer to a DHS product produced in 2008 or earlier, and to very explicitly cast doubt on the interpretation of all such documents and products. Here’s what DHS wants these terms to mean, now; who knows what individual authors wanted them to mean in 2007, or 2005, or 2003?

I mean, the introduction notes “Definitions were derived from a variety of open source materials and unclassified information, then further developed during facilitated workshops with DHS intelligence analysts knowledgeable about domestic, non-Islamic extremism in the United States“. (Emphasis mine.) This isn’t DHS saying “here are commonly-accepted definitions of some key terms”, this is DHS saying “here’s what we want these terms to be understood to mean”, and damn what Wiktionary says! (Also, who the hell proofreads these things? “domestic, non-Islamic extremism in the United States” didn’t seem a little bit redundant to anyone but me?)

Well, DHS, you get a “B” for effort, but overall I’d have to give this one a “C”. You can do better, I know you can. (Hell, your average college student can do better… at 0800 on a Saturday morning.)

Published in: Geekiness, General | on May 5th, 2009| Comments Off on Baby Steps

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