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How to Combat White Supremacist Violence? Avoid Flawed Post-9/11 Counterterrorism Tactics

Attempts to expand government powers and to predict violence based on beliefs remain ineffective.

View the entire 9/11 at 20 series

On Janu­ary 6, a mob includ­ing white suprem­acists and far-right milit­ants stormed into the Capitol as lawmakers were certi­fy­ing Joe Biden’s elec­tion victory. The attack followed mass shoot­ings by white suprem­acists — like in El Paso in 2019 and a Pitt­s­burgh synagogue the year before — and relat­ively unpo­liced public viol­ence by far-right milit­ants at rallies across the coun­try since Donald Trump’s elec­tion.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion now seeks to turn the post-9/11 coun­terter­ror­ism enter­prise’s atten­tion toward suppress­ing terror­ism perpet­rated by “domestic viol­ent extrem­ists.” But in making this shift, it is vital that we learn from the mistakes of our post-9/11 response rather than simply repeat­ing them. Already there are signs that we are fall­ing prey to the same prob­lem­atic assump­tions that took hold 20 years ago — namely, that we need to expand coun­terter­ror­ism author­it­ies and use ideo­logy as an indic­ator of poten­tial viol­ence.

These approaches are sure to back­fire. Instead, our govern­ment should direct its focus toward pursu­ing and punish­ing acts of viol­ence that it has too long ignored, using the ample tools at its disposal and without regard to ideo­logy.

The red herring of new author­it­ies

Follow­ing the 9/11 attacks, Congress raced to provide the govern­ment with new author­it­ies to go after inter­na­tional terror­ist groups. Within weeks of the attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act. The law vastly expan­ded the govern­ment’s abil­ity to secretly collect Amer­ic­ans’ personal inform­a­tion and commu­nic­a­tions data without prob­able-cause warrants or suspi­cion of wrong­do­ing, despite the absence of any analysis suggest­ing that this increased surveil­lance was neces­sary to effect­ively prevent terror­ism.

Later exam­in­a­tions showed these author­it­ies were easily abused to infringe on Amer­ic­ans’ privacy rights. The one program that was subject to extens­ive inde­pend­ent review was found to be all but useless in identi­fy­ing terror­ist plots — not to mention illegal.

Nonethe­less, there have been similar calls to expand the govern­ment’s author­it­ies in the wake of the Janu­ary 6 attack. The White House is now seri­ously consid­er­ing propos­als to give law enforce­ment new stat­utory author­ity to take on domestic terror­ism. But white suprem­acist and far-right milit­ant viol­ence is not a new prob­lem, and the FBI has signi­fic­ant legal author­ity to tackle it — as the multi­tude of federal charges against more than 500 people who attacked the Capitol attest.

Indeed, an entire chapter of the U.S. crim­inal code is devoted to terror­ism. It contains 57 federal crimes of terror­ism, 51 of which apply to domestic acts. Federal prosec­utors use these and dozens of other applic­able federal stat­utes in char­ging twice as many domestic terror­ism cases than inter­na­tional terror­ism cases in recent years (using just a frac­tion of the resources). Federal prosec­utors have made clear that some of those who parti­cip­ated in viol­ence during the attack on the Capitol have been charged with “crimes of terror­ism.”

The FBI’s inad­equate response to far-right viol­ence results from a lack of will, not a lack of legal author­ity. The FBI has used its domestic terror­ism author­it­ies aggress­ively to target and harass envir­on­ment­al­ists and animal rights activ­ists, despite the fact that these groups have not commit­ted a single fatal attack. Yet the FBI does­n’t even track the number of murders commit­ted by white suprem­acists each year, much less consist­ently invest­ig­ate these crimes as domestic terror­ism.

Expand­ing coun­terter­ror­ism author­it­ies will not solve this atten­tion defi­cit. To the contrary, both history and recent events suggest that new laws could become tools in the future for FBI agents to target those seek­ing to reform systems of struc­tural racism and social inequity rather than those commit­ting racist viol­ence. Indeed, Trump and Attor­ney General William Barr labeled anti-racism and police viol­ence protest­ers as domestic terror­ists and diver­ted coun­terter­ror­ism resources away from invest­ig­a­tions of viol­ent white suprem­acists and far-right milit­ants who later attacked the Capitol.

A misdir­ec­ted focus on ideo­logy

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has also revived an Obama-era program designed to counter “viol­ent extrem­ism,” which relied on widely discred­ited theor­ies of terror­ist radic­al­iz­a­tion that painted Muslim reli­gious prac­tices and the expres­sion of polit­ical griev­ances as precurs­ors to viol­ence.

Moving the coun­terter­ror­ism focus from invest­ig­at­ing deadly viol­ence that fits the stat­utory defin­i­tion of domestic terror­ism to suppress­ing “extrem­ist” ideo­lo­gies is danger­ous, as it implies that law enforce­ment should play a role in determ­in­ing what ideas Amer­ic­ans are permit­ted to express. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the “war on terror,” it’s that stretch­ing law enforce­ment beyond its appro­pri­ate focus on crime and viol­ence can under­mine the very demo­cratic values white suprem­acy opposes.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has rebranded the Obama admin­is­tra­tion’s program, which was framed as “coun­ter­ing viol­ent extrem­ism” or CVE, as the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity’s Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships (CP3). Like CVE, the CP3 program seeks to train law enforce­ment offi­cials, educat­ors, public health offi­cials, social work­ers, and private citizens to identify and report people who show purpor­ted warn­ing signs that they might commit an act of “targeted” viol­ence or terror­ism some­time in the future. These supposed indic­at­ors include some combin­a­tion of vague and common­place char­ac­ter­ist­ics like hold­ing a griev­ance, being socially alien­ated, and feel­ing hope­less. In some cases, indi­vidu­als with these traits might need some kind of assist­ance, but treat­ing them as would-be mass murder­ers is misguided.

In addi­tion to falsely labeling people in need as danger­ous, this flawed approach corrodes the trust that teach­ers, coaches, reli­gious lead­ers, ther­ap­ists, and others need to serve as ment­ors, provide treat­ment, or other­wise help people work through diffi­cult times in their lives. It also opens a pipeline for chan­nel­ing well-docu­mented soci­etal biases into an already corrup­ted “pre-crime” law enforce­ment surveil­lance system.

As for law enforce­ment agents, direct­ing them to counter “radical” ideo­lo­gies or identify ill-defined “concern­ing beha­vi­ors” will undoubtedly lead to the target­ing of those who chal­lenge the status quo — immig­rant communit­ies, communit­ies of color, reli­gious minor­it­ies, and activ­ists — rather than white suprem­acists who have long been deeply embed­ded in power­ful govern­ment insti­tu­tions like law enforce­ment and the milit­ary, as the Capitol riot demon­strated. History provides ample evid­ence of this point: ideas that have stood in oppos­i­tion to estab­lished struc­tures of power, such as civil rightslabor organ­iz­ing, or women’s suffrage, are the ones law enforce­ment has treated as “radical.”

A better way forward

Instead of using dubi­ous meth­ods to predict the next mass shooter, law enforce­ment should address deadly viol­ence that is already occur­ring. Police and prosec­utors have turned a blind eye to viol­ence at far-right rallies around the coun­try where counter-protest­ors were shot and beaten, includ­ing by some perpet­rat­ors who later stormed the Capitol. Accord­ing to media report­ing, three far-right milit­ants who tried to break into the Oregon State Capitol the month before also parti­cip­ated in the Capitol riots, yet remain uncharged. More broadly, despite an annual expendit­ure of more than $100 billion on poli­cing in the U.S., more than half of viol­ent crime goes unsolved each year, includ­ing almost 40 percent of murders and more than 65 percent of rapes, with racial minor­it­ies dispro­por­tion­ately feel­ing the impact of this law enforce­ment inac­tion. 

Until recently, the Depart­ment of Justice has failed to prior­it­ize the invest­ig­a­tion and prosec­u­tion of white suprem­acist viol­ence — treat­ing it as a lesser threat than so-called “eco-terror­ism,” which has cost zero Amer­ican lives. Shortly before the attack on the Capitol by a mob that included active members of law enforce­ment, FBI managers disavowed a 2006 bureau intel­li­gence assess­ment warn­ing of white suprem­acist infilt­ra­tion of police agen­cies and refused to parti­cip­ate in a congres­sional hear­ing to exam­ine the issue. An FBI intel­li­gence report issued after the Capitol attack substan­ti­ated the find­ings of the 2006 assess­ment.

The govern­ment’s misplaced prior­it­ies are reflec­ted in — and enabled by — its fail­ure to accur­ately and compre­hens­ively track white suprem­acist viol­ence. This fail­ure results from several prac­tices. For one thing, the Justice Depart­ment defers invest­ig­a­tions of hate crime and most viol­ent crime to state and local police, so many of the viol­ent crimes commit­ted by white suprem­acists are completely absent from federal data­bases.

When the Justice Depart­ment does invest­ig­ate white suprem­acist viol­ence, the invest­ig­a­tions fall within several differ­ent program categor­ies, includ­ing domestic terror­ism, civil rights viol­a­tions, and gang crimes. But the FBI reports assess­ing the threat from white suprem­acist viol­ence, count only those crimes it categor­ized as domestic terror­ism, leav­ing out homicides prosec­uted through other programs or deferred to state and local law enforce­ment. Even within the domestic terror­ism program, the FBI puts white suprem­acists and far-right milit­ant groups into separ­ate categor­ies, even though there is signi­fic­ant over­lap between these move­ments and they often act in concert. Accord­ingly, the FBI’s data regard­ing viol­ent attacks and fatal­it­ies commit­ted by white suprem­acists severely under­es­tim­ates the threat they pose, which in turn results in misal­loc­a­tions of domestic terror­ism resources.

Repur­pos­ing failed “war on terror” tactics is not the answer to white suprem­acist and far-right viol­ence. Instead, the Justice Depart­ment should use its abund­ant exist­ing author­it­ies to address viol­ent crime, focus­ing its resources where they are most needed. Adequately prior­it­iz­ing white suprem­acist viol­ence starts with main­tain­ing accur­ate data about the crimes these groups commit, regard­less of how the Justice Depart­ment categor­izes them. Only with accur­ate inform­a­tion can poli­cy­makers develop effect­ive tactics and hold federal law enforce­ment account­able for its perform­ance in address­ing domestic terror­ism.