In the past, incidents of white nationalist violence haven’t garnered the attention they deserve from Congress or federal law enforcement. But after the August 2019 El Paso shooting by a young white supremacist, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Randy K. Weber Sr. (R-TX) introduced two separate bills that would create a new crime of domestic terrorism, citing lethal white nationalist crimes as the justification.
While it’s reassuring, and long overdue, for members of Congress to take the threat of white nationalist violence seriously, such legislation is both unnecessary and creates serious risks of abuse.
The federal government doesn’t need new terrorism authorities
The FBI already has all the authority it needs to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of white nationalist violence. Congress has enacted 51 federal crimes of terrorism that apply to entirely domestic acts and further prohibited material support toward the commission of these violent crimes. The bureau’s array of legal authorities do not end there, however. Congress has also passed five federal hate crime laws that target bias-motivated violence as well as organized crime and conspiracy statutes that are often used to prosecute violent white supremacist groups.
By creating a new crime of domestic terrorism, the proposed bills would give the Justice Department and FBI access to broad additional charges that could be used to target minorities and activists.
Throughout its history, the FBI has used its authorities to investigate and monitor political protesters and civil rights activists. Since 9/11, the FBI has used its counterterrorism authorities to target Muslims, Arabs, and people from the Middle East and Asia, as well as people who dissent from the status quo. In 2005, the FBI named “eco-terrorism,” which hasn’t produced a single fatality in this country, the number one domestic terrorism threat. In August 2017, the FBI concocted a “black identity extremist movement” out of a handful of unrelated acts of violence and warned law enforcement agencies across the country that black activists protesting police violence posed a threat to them. And this year, President Trump tweeted that he was considering designating anti-fascists a terrorist organization.
Schiff’s proposal is so broad that it would empower the attorney general to lay terrorism charges against anyone who committed an assault, damaged property, or threatened such an act if he determined it was intended to intimidate a civilian population or influence government policy. Given the Justice Department’s track record and Trump’s rhetoric, it isn’t at all unreasonable to fear the federal government will use these powers against protesters and political opponents. After all, the Justice Department charged more than 200 anti-Trump protesters with felonies after someone broke some store windows on Inauguration Day in 2017.
Members of Congress, the FBI, and other federal law enforcement agencies should also refrain from rehabilitating a counterterrorism framework known as countering violent extremism (CVE). There is no evidence the program prevents violence, but it has been used by state, local, and federal law enforcement to cultivate informants and spy on law-abiding groups and individuals, overwhelmingly Muslim, who are engaged in First Amendment-protected activities. CVE programs, which are based on discredited theories of terrorist radicalization, are unlikely to be useful in reducing white supremacist violence.
How to combat white nationalist violence the right way
Instead of giving the FBI new domestic terrorism authorities it doesn’t need, members of Congress can ensure that the bureau allocates its resources appropriately to properly address white nationalist violence. For too long, the Justice Department and FBI have failed to track critical data, including the number of white supremacist attacks and the number of fatalities they produce. The Justice Department also continues to mask the number of federal investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of violent white nationalism.
Just this year, the FBI eliminated the terrorism category used to track white nationalist attacks and investigations and replaced it with a new category, “racially motivated violent extremism.” This move grouped persistent levels of white nationalist violence with the imaginary threat of so-called black identity extremists. Beyond the false equivalence between a very real threat and a manufactured one, the new category also obscures from members of Congress and the American people the precise scope of white nationalist violence and the extent to which the FBI is investigating them.
Rather than manipulating categories to hide the breadth of the white nationalist threat, the Justice Department should develop and release a strategy to combat white nationalist violence. The strategy should indicate how this type of violence ranks in the FBI’s list of priorities and the resources allocated to combating it. Currently, while fighting terrorism ranks as the FBI’s top priority, hate crime and gang crime investigations — which are commonly used to target white nationalists — are the bureau’s fifth and sixth priorities, respectively. How these crimes are categorized determines the amount of resources devoted to these investigations.
Members of Congress have responded to these problems. The Domestic and International Terrorism Data Act, introduced by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and passed by the House of Representatives, includes provisions that would mandate the Justice Department, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security provide Congress specific information on domestic terrorism investigations.
Also Rep. Donald Beyer Jr. (D-VA) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have introduced the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer No Hate Act into both chambers, which would improve data collection under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act and help Congress and law enforcement get a better grasp on the extent of white nationalist violence.
Vulnerable communities also need police reform
Another factor complicating the government’s fight against white nationalist violence is law enforcement itself. Sadly, the communities targeted by white supremacists — African Americans, LGBTQ, and undocumented people — are also the same communities who experience disproportionate amounts of police violence and abuse. Justice Department crime victim surveys indicate that more than half of hate crime victims refuse to report to police, citing a lack of trust.
In June, Buzzfeed in collaboration with Injustice Watch, a nonprofit newsroom, published a report documenting how thousands of officers around the country posted offensive and racist material on Facebook. Then in July, ProPublica reported on a secret Border Patrol Facebook group where members exchanged xenophobic, racist, and sexist memes and joked about the deaths of undocumented immigrants.
While rooting out racism and bigotry in law enforcement is no small task, Congress isn’t powerless. For starters, members of Congress should pass the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD). The legislation prohibits racial profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; mandates federal law enforcement to maintain adequate policies to eliminate racial profiling; and requires state and local law enforcement to maintain adequate policies to eliminate racial profiling in return for federal grants.
In the face of tragedies like El Paso, the natural inclination is to give the government more power in the name of public safety. This would be a mistake. Instead, Congress should compel the Justice Department and FBI to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of white nationalist violence, track its spread, and use the powerful investigative tools it already has to combat this persistent problem.