Military's Work on Sexual Assault Might Help with Fighting Extremists, Report Suggests

Extremism Stand-Down Day at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas
Lt. Col. Ryan Polcar, 19th Airlift Wing director of staff, facilitates an impermissible behaviors discussion with members of the 19th AW during the Extremism Stand-Down Day at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, March 19, 2021. (Dana J. Cable/U.S. Air Force)

As the military tackles the problem of extremism in its ranks, one team of researchers suggests thinking about the problem in a novel manner: Deal with it the way you would sexual assault.

A team from CNA, a research organization based in Arlington, Virginia, released a report Monday arguing that "key parallels" exist between the two issues and that some of the work on sexual assault "can be adapted to provide a solid starting point for addressing racial extremism."

The paper contends that one of the key similarities between the two issues is that neither exists in only its most extreme form. The issue of sexual harassment and assault is not just a problem of rape; for example, lesser behaviors such as casual sexually themed comments create environments where more extreme behaviors are seen as acceptable or tolerated.

Similarly, the report argues, actions such as allowing racist jokes and remarks create an environment that can be interpreted by would-be extremists as accommodating of more violent actions.

Another key similarity, according to Megan McBride, one of the report's authors, is that, at their most extreme, both issues end with behavior that is illegal and prohibited by the military.

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"How do you stop these activities and behaviors that already are illegal -- where their illegality isn't enough to prevent them from occurring?" she questioned in a phone call with

McBride and her co-authors assert that the answer to that problem can be drawn from the military's work on sexual assault.

She proposes replicating "some of the reporting mechanisms that exist within the sexual assault/sexual harassment world, both because it provides people an opportunity to indicate that something has happened, but also because it creates an opportunity for the DoD to create a database to understand the real scope of the problem."

"If you talk to researchers about the problem of extremism in the military right now, a recurrent theme you hear is we don't have any data," McBride added.

It's a sentiment that comes from inside the military as well.

McBride also observed that "the military doesn't have a definition of extremism per se. It has a definition of prohibited extremist behaviors."

As a result, only the most flagrant or obvious examples of extremism get documented or addressed.

McBride is quick to note, though, that she and her team are not suggesting that the military's handling of sexual assault in its ranks is complete or totally successful. Nor are they saying the issues are identical.


"These two problems are close enough that we can turn to the literature on sexual harassment, sexual assault, and learn an incredible amount and, even if we don't have processes that we can replicate perfectly, we can start five steps ahead," she explained.

Since taking office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has given more focus to the issue of extremists in the ranks, but the issue is far from resolved.

Aside from service members continuing to belong to white supremacy organizations, the Pentagon also has acknowledged that extremist groups are actively trying to recruit military members.

Congress has begun hearings on the topic as well.

The CNA report shies away from making recommendations of grand solutions to the problems it outlines, and McBride notes that "our primary offering in this report was a different framework for thinking about the scope of the problem."

"Whatever that solution is, it should ... create an environment that's hospitable to the service member of color and inhospitable to his or her racist leader," she said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Yes, an Air Force Recruit with Ties to a Hate Group Is Out. But the Military's Extremism Problem Isn't Fixed.

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