As Virginia approached the peak of its COVID surge last January, Robyn Sweet was sick with the disease and caring for a patient who was dying from it.
Then she heard the news: her father had been arrested for invading the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“He felt that he was doing what the President asked him to,” Sweet, who works at a long-term care facility in the Virginia Tidewater region, told TPM.
Her father, a participant at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, was arrested in the days after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. Douglas Sweet was charged with violent conduct on Capitol grounds, impeding a government function, and criminal trespass. He and his attorney did not return requests for comment.
For Robyn Sweet, it came as a shock, but not a surprise. Their relationship, she said, had deteriorated over the past few years as he became increasingly cocooned in the world of far-right conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate and QAnon.
It’s a problem that’s confronted families across the country as they struggle to find ways to reach loved ones who are sliding into extremism, and may mobilize to violent acts that land them in jail. One hotline devoted to the issue has seen its call volume triple since Jan. 6.
But researchers say that the U.S. lags behind other countries in programs to prevent extremists from mobilizing to commit violent acts. In Germany and Scandinavia, for example, the government has developed programs for families to intervene with loved ones who, relatives worry, may be considering committing a politically motivated attack.
Brian Hughes, co-founder of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, told TPM that families with radicalizing relatives reach out to him periodically. He’s also noticed an uptick since Jan. 6.
“It tears families apart as surely as drugs and alcohol,” Hughes said. “The level of destructiveness to personal relationships is unbelievable.”
Daniel Koehler, a German extremism researcher who has consulted for law enforcement in the U.S., told TPM that he regularly receives inquiries from American families who don’t know where to turn.
“The U.S. is behind most West European countries, especially Germany and Scandinavia, by 30 years,” Koehler said. Even with renewed efforts, he said, the U.S. has a long way to go. “It’s actually a huge stretch that the U.S. needs to cover to get roughly to the same level.”
Koehler said that Germany has a structure that approaches the problem in different ways depending on the facts of the situation. One family may only want help finding a counselor, another, depending on the severity of the threat, may require witness protection.
The country has regional outreach offices that provide help to people who are afraid that family members are being radicalized, and may be mobilizing to commit an act of violence.
“Ideally, you’d have a helpline, hotline, or any other central place where parents, teachers, social workers can address concerns, counseling, case assessment,” Koehler said, describing deradicalization and prevention of violent extremism as more of an “art” than a science. “If it’s really a concerning case, then they get referred to a local service provider to help mitigate the risk, and bring people undergoing radicalization away from that process.”
Very few organizations in the U.S. offer these kinds of services, though experts say that family-based interventions are often the only effective route to reach people who may commit an act of extremist violence before they do so.
The groups that do tend to be underfunded and understaffed.
Parents for Peace, a mostly volunteer-run group co-founded by a man whose son radicalized and killed a soldier, offers a national hotline to help yank people away from extremism. The group has said that calls to the line tripled after Jan. 6. In Colorado, the state funds a hotline called Safe2Tell, which aims to provide people with “a safe, anonymous way to help someone who is struggling or hurting.”
The Department of Homeland Security has committed in the past to making prevention efforts a larger feature of counterterrorism policy, though persistent concerns about the potential for freedom of speech violations have made it difficult for such initiatives to gain traction.
“We can’t be thought police,” Dr. Rachel Nielsen, former director of the Colorado Resilience Collaborative, told TPM, explaining that he group could only step in in a limited set of circumstances. “It’s only if someone is going to go hurt another person.”
Chicken or the egg?
Sweet, the daughter of the Jan. 6 defendant, told TPM that she believes her father was more susceptible to extremist views in part because of isolation: he was living alone, without a spouse and with children who had left and moved away.
“It was belonging, finding a group of people that share the same ideas with you,” she said.
But whether a person radicalizes based off a grievance in their own life, or whether the ideology itself pushes them towards violence, can remain a chicken-or-egg problem.
It’s only in recent years that prevention of violent extremism has been considered possible. DHS has spurred that recognition in part through an as-of-yet small grant program, offering $20 million for the coming year, aimed at funding programs to prevent terrorist violence.
Advocates of preventative approaches to violent extremism argue that family members are uniquely positioned to identify both when someone is going off the rails and, potentially, address any underlying problem that’s contributing to the issue.
The idea is that for people who are lonely or suffering from personal problems, family frequently remains the only way to break past the worldview and sense of community that far-right extremist groups can provide for their members.
“Without face to face social discourse, we tend to go to more mean, extreme places,” Nielsen said. “So you take someone who is already in a bad place, you give them voice, a rationale, have people cheering them on, and tell them they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”
Hughes, the American University researcher, said that bringing people back tends to be most successful early on in the radicalization process, and almost always via family members who can effectively compete with the sense of belonging that radical groups provide.
“The therapeutic, emotional approaches tend to be the most effective,” Hughes said.
Robyn Sweet, a Black Lives Matter activist, still remembers how before Jan. 6, her father Douglas was able to connect with her at times as his daughter, even when their politics were clearly opposed.
At a summer 2020 protest to change the name of a local elementary school named after two Confederate generals, her father was there on the other side, Sweet recalls, with a group of people waving Confederate flags.
“But halfway through, he saw me and yelled ‘I love ya,'” Sweet said.
She added that her father had disowned her since she spoke out about him following the insurrection.
“He can come at any time ever, regardless of how much I disagree with something he says or does,” she added.