USC Price School of Public Policy

Southers delivers keynote at US Air Force Academy, breaking down myths about extremism

March 7, 2018

USC Price Professor Erroll Southers (Photo/US Air Force Academy)

By Matthew Kredell

Speaking to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Erroll Southers let them know that, even though they are intelligent students demonstrating a commitment to being the next generation of American leaders, they are also prime targets for recruitment by homegrown violent extremist organizations.

Southers with the Air Force Academy physical training staff

“This academy is a target-rich environment for recruiters,” Southers said at the 2018 National Character and Leadership Symposium. “You’re the demographic that these violent extremist groups focus on — young, idealistic. Don’t think because of who you are and where you are that you wouldn’t be attractive to a lot of people who want to do ill will in the world.”

The well-attended event in its 25th year included such varied speakers as philosopher and Harvard Professor Cornel West, therapist Dr. Ruth and NFL Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Southers, director of the Safe Communities Institute at USC Price, spoke in front of about 1,000 people in the large auditorium on Feb. 22, then again the next day in a smaller room for people who might have missed the first speech while attending a concurrent session.

“It’s a who’s who in the world, not just a who’s who in the military,” Southers said. “The people invited to speak there are A-listers. I’ve never spoken in a larger venue in my career. Before I even finished the first day, I told the Air Force Academy that, if they’ll have me back, I’ll be here next year.”

‘Be part of the change’

Southers at the 2018 National Character and Leadership Symposium (Photo/US Air Force Academy)

Southers with Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria

Southers titled his speech “Inside the Castle Walls” after advice his father gave him. Growing up in the ’60s, Southers saw racism and had the demoralizing experience of being stopped by police while walking down the street for no reason more than the color of his skin.

“My dad used to say to me, ‘if you don’t like things, you can’t change the castle from outside the moat,’” Southers said. “You can be part of that change. You can be part of that movement that makes things right.”

Southers went on to a long career in law enforcement, mainly in the FBI, and has served in counterterrorism and public safety positions at every level of government, including as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointee as deputy director for critical infrastructure with the California Office of Homeland Security. He was President Obama’s first nominee to head the TSA.

Education on extremism

Southers in the Aeronautical Laboratory

The bulk of Southers’ speech addressed homegrown violent extremism, educating the cadets that race- and issue-oriented extremist organizations have done more damage in the United States since 9/11 than Muslim or religion-motivated terrorist organizations. Hybrid ideologies have developed where young people want to do something extreme but aren’t tied to one particular cause.

“The first thing I wanted them to understand was that a kid from New Jersey wound up becoming a governor’s appointee and a presidential nominee,” Southers said. “This is the only country in the world where you can do almost anything you want, given the right circumstances, access and solid mentors. The second takeaway was that the threat is not always how it appears on national news outlets.”

Southers was nominated for the opportunity to participate in the symposium by Lt. Col. Olivia Nelson. As department chair for the Air Force ROTC program at USC, Nelson brought 15 cadets, two graduate students and three USC Price professors – Southers, Frank Zerunyan and Carol Geffner – to attend the conference.

“When I heard the theme for this year’s NCLS was ethics and respect for human dignity, I thought immediately of Dr. Southers,” Nelson said. “His work on homegrown violent extremism is, at its heart, all about understanding and thwarting those elements in society that have lost their way in the most dramatic and lethal sense when it comes to respect for others.”