Why prevent? Finnish national seminar on violent extremism
Päivi Räsänen, Minister of the Interior
Honorable guests, dear participants,
Our society used to be simpler. ”Falling out” was easier to identifiy. Alcohol, drugs, economical problems and crime were linked to people who had fallen out of society. Our interventions were clear. The police and the courts answered to crime. Health care and social services dealt with poverty and substance abuse. Now people fall out in so many ways that authorities and society have a hard time keeping up.
When the school shootings of Kauhajoki and Jokela happened in Finland, the search and need for answers was great. Why had this happened? How could it happen? In the following investigations we were good at answering these questions. Mental health issues, school bullying, violent video games and loneliness were all mentioned as reasons for why these young men had done the unthinkable. Only recently after the tragic events of Utöya and Oslo, the public discussion has recognized the ideological parts and extremist online communities related to these acts.
It is hard for the common man to understand the temptation of anti-society groups that hate humanity itself. They seem to work very similarly to other extremist groups, however. Being part of the group brings meaning and purpose to life and in the most tragic cases, also death. Even though the Finnish school shooters’ ideology did not ntend to change society in the same way as traditional terrorists’, they did. Events like these always create fear. Fear gives rise to proposals for extreme measures. After the school shootings, many called for metal detectors at all schools. Ultimately, the measures taken focused on prevention and school communities’ own capabilities to maintain a safe and secure learning environment.
When speaking of violent extremism, we often mention names of people who commit these horrible acts. We separate ourselves from them and see them as ”evil”. Victims of extremism are often mentioned only as numbers. We cannot forget that victims of this form of violence are people’s brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends. When someone is targeted by violence for what they are, not who they are, this creates fear in others and they are also victimized. ”Can I live here freely without being attacked? Who can I talk to? Can my children go to school safely?” The act of violence becomes an attack on the freedom of this society.
In face of new challenges, old ones are also present. They may take their old form, which we recognize, but they also change and evolve as society changes and evolves. Hatred and extreme ideologies are good at adapting to fit the needs of the silently dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction and uncertain futures makes the most fruitful breeding grounds for violent extremism. The threat of right-wing extremism never died after the Second World War, but it changed and adapted to society. It has recently fueled itself with claims about immigration from outside Europe, social injustice and threats to our culture. Many parts of the old rhetoric also still exist. Anti-Semitism, for example, is not a thing of the past, but is alive and well in Europe. We are also seeing signs of extremist groups changing their rhetoric to seem more sincere. They denounce hatred and violence in public to gain support and then embrace these values behind closed doors.
The conflict in Syria has taught us how complicated violent extremism can be. Extremist groups fighting in unstable regions is not a new thing. These conflicts have also always attracted people from other countries. What is new to us is the number and type of people the conflict appeals to. European and domestic experiences show that there are many people traveling who we never thought would be taking up arms. Very young people as well as women and whole families with no history of extremism are travelling to participate in fighting. We have heard reports of European-born young Muslims having traveled and being forced into staying against their will and forced into committing serious crimes.
Foreign fighters in Syria is not one phenomenon with one single solution. People travel with different backgrounds and different motives. They also stay or return for different reasons. This is very challenging for our society. When are we dealing with dangerous, ideologically-motivated criminals who can try to harm our society after their return? When are we dealing with misguided youth who watched the wrong Youtube video at the wrong time? A broad approach is necessary.
The measures to counter violent extremism have to be adequate. Currently, the Ministry of Interior along with other ministries are looking at what can be changed in our legislation for authorities to have necessary tools. It is highly important that these measures are effective and well-balanced. Still, it is evident, that there are no such acceptable legal measures that could by themselves fully remove these challenges. Prevention is and will always be needed. We have to find a good balance of preventive, administrative and criminal procedures that work well together. People in our society must be able to live their lives without fear of violence but also without fear of the government.
I have spoken some words that came to mind as answers to the question ”Why prevent?” I look forward to the discussions and presentations on this topic throughout the day. There is perhaps an even more important and more difficult question, though. This is ”How prevent?” Cooperation and a broad understanding are key. The latter is another big reason for why we are here today. We are facing issues that involve all of us – not only authorities or certain communities. By sharing and combining not only our understanding, but also our professional skills and possibilities, we are in a much better position to answer these issues.
I warmly welcome all participants here today. I wish you all a very fruitful seminar and that we all leave with takeaways that strengthen our understanding and capacity in preventing violent extremism.