Last month’s massacre of 22 people in a Texas Walmart by a man aiming to battle “a Hispanic invasion” is only the latest horror story as the radical right continues to murder and terrorize. For the first time in memory, a consensus of U.S. law enforcement officials agree that white supremacist domestic terrorism has become the No. 1 terrorist threat facing the United States. The question now is, what is to be done?
I recently attended a conference hosted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, entitled “Domestic Terrorism and Its Global Context: Exploring the USG Approach”—an invitation-only gathering of government officials, civil society activists and academics concerned with the threat. The meeting was convened specifically to make suggestions for U.S. government action.
I have been studying the radical right for almost 25 years now, and it’s difficult enough to come up with anything approaching a “solution” for private groups or individuals, let alone laws or police actions that must and should be carried out by a government that respects civil liberties in a free society. There is nothing approaching a silver bullet for the government, or for private citizens.
The government’s Countering Violent Extremism program, begun under the auspices of DHS in 2011, illustrates part of the dilemma. It directed millions of dollars toward working with community groups to prevent or reverse radicalization by engaging with at-risk youth and others. But while the program is supported by some, large numbers of Muslim and other minority groups say it stigmatizes their communities as likely terrorists, encourages neighbors spying on one another, and is largely ineffective. Many believe it has done more harm than good.
Another example is the City of New York Police Department’s Muslim surveillance program, started in 2002, which included listing mosques as potential terrorist organizations, sending undercover agents into Muslim neighborhoods to listen in on conversations, and undertaking a “mapping” of people believed to be vulnerable to radicalization. The program was widely criticized after it was exposed and drew lawsuits over its religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance and, in 2014, then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton disbanded the squad. A federal lawsuit against the NYPD ended in 2018 with a major settlement for the plaintiffs.
The United Kingdom’s Prevent program, started in 2007, ran into similarly severe criticism for its highly disproportionate targeting of Muslim communities. Many have called for the entire counter-radicalization effort to be scrapped.
Of course, there have been some useful efforts, many of them focused squarely on violence from the white supremacist movement. Exit programs, aimed at helping individuals leave the movement, have had some success though the Trump administration has largely defunded them. De-platforming of radical ideologues—convincing private companies like Google and Facebook to remove extremist content—also has had some impact, and major tech companies recently agreed to expand their Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.
But those efforts, and others like them, have had limited effect, and most likely never disrupted a violent white supremacist attack. No one yet has come up with a reliable list of indicators of radicalization. In addition, the positive benefits of some programs have been overwhelmed by President Trump and other far-right politicians seeming to endorse ideas of the white nationalist movement while painting Islamist terrorism as the only serious threat.
The Texas attack capped a kind of sea change among law enforcement officials, however, as new statistics showed that right-wing domestic terror since the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks has been significantly deadlier than Islamist terror.
At the Sept. 23 conference, held just outside Washington, D.C., the most substantive subject discussed was the idea of passing a national law outlawing “domestic terrorism.” Proponents argued that right-wing terrorists in the U.S. can only be charged with such crimes as murder and weapons violations, unlike foreign terrorists who face charges like terrorism or materially aiding a terrorist group. A new terrorism statute, they suggested, might elevate the importance of the threat in the minds of criminal investigators, the courts, and the broad public.
But at least 40 civil rights groups, including the most important such organizations in the country, staunchly oppose such a law. They argue, rightly in my view, that no new laws are needed to deal with extremist violence. They cite a long and sordid history of government abuse and infiltration of left-wing groups, suggesting that a domestic terrorism law might provide cover for a replay.
The changes we need lie elsewhere.
The real problem has been the reluctance of generations of American officials to describe racially motivated violent extremists correctly—as terrorists, just as dangerous and criminal as foreign Islamist terrorists. For years, the FBI refused to label the murders of abortion physicians by Christian extremists as terrorism. More recently, it claimed “eco-terrorists” were the main domestic terror threat in the country—an absurdity, given that not a single person has been killed by animal rights or environmental extremists. It is important to call a terrorist a terrorist, but the problem is political cowardice, not the lack of a new law.
I walked away from the conference with the sense that many participants were looking for a technical fix—some law or program that would ease or even end the threat of terroristic violence from the domestic radical right.
That shows a lack of basic understanding about the nature of the threat. Despite the claims of President Trump and media outlets like Fox News, it is not internet algorithms, mental illness, violent video games or even foreign plots that are driving the violence. The fact is, huge socioeconomic changes convulsing Western societies—including demographic shifts, cultural upheaval, and real economic hardship—have produced this movement.
And that means, regardless of the most well-meaning of efforts to confront the threat of resurgent white nationalism, that there are no easy fixes.