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Far-Right Violence Requires Smart and Strategic Changes to Law Enforcement

Far-right violence poses at least as grave a threat to American communities as violence committed by adherents of al Qaeda and ISIS. As we combat far-right violence, we must take a clear-eyed look at post-9/11 counterterrorism measures, repurposing the ones that worked and jettisoning those that didn’t or that imposed intolerably high costs on fundamental rights.

April 12, 2019

Cross posted from The Hill

With the wave of attacks on African AmericansJews and Muslims of the last years, concerns about far-right violence seem to have reached a tipping point. Even the FBI acknowledged that such violence from white nationalists is a “persistent, pervasive threat.” This week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on hate crimes and white nationalism seemed another step toward recognizing the need to address this threat. Unfortunately, the hearing went off the rails, with Republican witnesses — conservative commentator Candace Owens and Mort A. Klein of the Zionist Organization of America — using it as a platform for spreading even more anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Nonetheless, Congress and the Justice Department need to move forward. Empirical evidence shows that far-right violence, which encompasses attacks by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-government groups, poses at least as grave a threat to American communities as violence committed by adherents of al Qaeda and ISIS.

As a Muslim immigrant, I know first-hand how these attacks have shaken minority communities’ sense of safety and belonging. At the same time, as someone who has studied the impact of the post-9/11 counterterrorism playbook, I am wary of the push to replicate it wholesale in fighting violence against my community and other religious and racial minorities. We should take a clear-eyed look at the measures used against al Qaeda and ISIS, repurposing the ones that worked and jettisoning those that didn’t or that imposed intolerably high costs on fundamental rights.

To begin, we know that the allocation of counterterrorism resources is not commensurate with the threat. Changing that means making a concerted effort to count incidents of far-right violence and publishing those statistics alongside international terrorism numbers — it might sound obvious, but the Justice Department doesn’t do this. It means prioritizing investigations of far-right violence. Currently, the Justice Department designates a significant portion of this violence as a civil rights issue (fifth on the FBI’s priority list) rather than domestic terrorism. Some of these surely rise to the level of terrorism and should be prosecuted as such. It means changing the lopsided allocation of personnel — according to the most recent numbers available, out of 2,185 agents assigned to counter-terrorism, only about 335 handle domestic terrorism — so that enough agents are assigned to investigate potential incidents of far-right violence. Congress has already been nudging the Justice Department and the FBI in this direction and must step up the pressure.

We all know that ideologies have global reach. The Christchurch attacker was Australian but wanted to sabotage New Zealand, was inspired by a Norwegian, and hoped “to create conflict between the two ideologies within the United States on the ownership of firearms to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide.” But we know less about the extent of far-right violent networks and the role they may have played in the spate of violence that has spanned the globe. It is incumbent on us to find out. Information sharing among governments about transnational threats has become ubiquitous in the last decades. These mechanisms should be used to track violent far-right militants as well.

As we tackle far-right violence with vigor, we also know what not to do. The FBI doesn’t need new authorities. It already has expansive powers, many granted after 9/11. Predictably, these were turned on Muslims, who have borne the brunt of overbroad counterterrorism programs and have been collectively tarred with the terrorism label.

Despite calls from current and former law enforcement officials, we don’t need an expansive new domestic terrorism law. The Justice Department should enforce the 51 domestic terrorism statutes on the books, as well as five federal hate crimes laws and the range of broad conspiracy statutes at its disposal. A new domestic terrorism law would only give law enforcement unchecked authority to go after the activist groups that it doesn’t like, such as the fictitious “black identity extremists” the FBI recently identified as a threat, or “pro-choice extremists” its analysts imagined.

Social media platforms are being asked to replicate their success in expunging terrorist speech to combat hate speech against Muslims, Jews, and people of color. But it is not clear how successful this effort has been, whether the tools used can be easily transposed to deal with far-right violence, and who else’s speech will be impacted. Most of the posts that Facebook removes as “terrorist content” are pictures or videos (e.g., of beheadings) that can be assigned unique identifiers and forever banned. Algorithms have a much harder time understanding what people say online. The highest reported accuracy rates for English natural language processing programs are about 80 percent, meaning that at least one in five posts will be categorized inaccurately. That’s why speech about racism gets taken down along with racist speech. Even videos documenting human rights abuses in Syria have been deleted from YouTube, along with videos celebrating such abuses.

Of course, the speech most likely to influence people doesn’t come from Internet trolls, but from our leaders. President Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant proclamations are so well-known that they hardly bear repeating. He won’t stop. But Congress — especially members of Trump’s own party — have the ability to provide a counterweight to both his rhetoric and his policies.

For too long our national security policy has been focused on trying to protect the majority while trampling on the rights of less powerful minority communities. We have the opportunity to change that dynamic. An effective response to far-right violence is critical to ensuring that national security policies protect all Americans. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, the Muslim, Jewish, African American, and Sikh victims of far-right violence “are us.”