Saturday, June 19, 2021

On Terrorism, the Enemy Live Down the Street

             Forget al Qaeda! Forget Isis! If you’re worried about terrorism in the United States, the intelligence community assesses that the most serious threat comes not from brown-skinned foreigners, but from the unhinged white supremacist neighbors down the street. who plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan or who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 with baseball bats, bear spray, and other weapons to try to block Joe Biden’s election as president of the United States, and the racially motivated white guys who carried out deadly mass shootings over the past several years in Charleston, Pittsburgh, and El Paso.

            President Biden gave the intelligence community’s warning sufficient credence to direct his National Security Council to prepare a detailed plan to counter domestic terrorism. The “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” opens by recalling the worst of the incidents from the past few years: the slaughter of black church members in Charleston by the young racist gunman Dylan Roof on June 27, 2015; the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, 2016; and the mass shooting of Latino customers by an anti-immigrant gunman at a Walmart in El Paso on Aug. 9, 2019.

The NSC document warns starkly that the United States faces “an elevated threat to the homeland in 2021” from so-called “domestic violent extremists (DVEs) who are motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events . . .”

Attorney General Merrick Garland elaborated on the warning as he detailed the administration’s plan on Tuesday [June 18]. “In the FBI’s view, the top domestic violence extremist threat comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocated for the superiority of the White race," Garland said.

The administration’s initiative represents a sharp break from the Trump presidency. Trump, after all, counted on support from these groups and even went so far as to encourage them when asked specifically about the Proud Boys group during the September 30, 2020, presidential debate. Federal law enforcement authorities have said they hesitated to go after domestic terrorists as long as Trump was in the White House.

Trump did not denounce the Proud Boys when asked in the presidential debate, but instead actually called on them for future help. He urged the group to “stand back and stand by.” Three months later, Proud Boys leaders and members were prominent in the Trump mob in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Some of them explained to reporters that they stormed the Capitol in direct response to Trump’s call to assemble in Washington and then to march to the Capitol.

It needs to be noted that we have seen this before, most dramatically perhaps in the post-Civil War Reconstruction. Disaffected white southerners formed the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize black citizens for exercising their rights to vote, run for public office, and serve for juries.

Congress responded by enacting the Enforcement Act of 1871 – commonly called the Ku Klux Klan Act –which made state officials liable in federal court for depriving anyone of the equal protection rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The act also allowed the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to combat the Klan and other white supremacist organizations.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court gutted the law in the most important test case to arise under the act. The government prosecuted nine of the white militia members who ousted the elected biracial government in Colfax, Louisiana, but the Court held in Cruikshank v. United States (1876) that the act could be enforced only against state officials, not against private actors.

The epidemic of more than 4,700 lynchings in the late 19th and through the 1930s was also racist-motivated domestic terrorism. The NAACP lobbied Congress hard to enact a federal anti-lynching law, but to no avail.

Some of the victims of 20th century domestic terrorism died not at the end of a rope but were killed through other means: Emmet Till, beaten to death in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955; and the civil rights workers Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, murdered and their bodies buried in an earthen dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964.

The Biden administration’s plan uses bureaucratic gobbledygook to call for countering the “persistent” threat. “Addressing domestic terrorism effectively, responsibly, and sustainably demands forging a government–wide effort while protecting the rule of law and distinctive law enforcement prerogatives,” the plan states.

The plan includes cautionary language about protecting “our cherished civil rights and civil liberties.” But that has not stopped Fox News opinion-mongers such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson from denouncing the plan as an effort to go after the Biden administration’s opponents in far right political circles.

The warnings, even if politically motivated, are not completely baseless. The FBI infiltrated and harassed left-wing political groups in the 1970s, at some cost to political liberties. Today, the COINTELPRO tactics of the earlier era are apt to be detected in real time and controlled by news organizations and advocacy groups more attuned to civil liberties violations than they were back then/

The United States has waged war on Islamist terrorism persistently and patiently over the past twenty years since 9/11. The war has achieved important results: Bin Laden is dead; Al Qaeda cells largely neutered in several countries.

The war on homegrown terrorists calls as well for patience, persistence, and bipartisan resolve. “This is project that should unite all Americans,” the NSC plan states. The plan offers no simple solution, but serves as a rallying cry for law-abiding Americans to join in trying to protect the homeland from the enemy within. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo remarked back in 1970, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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