hite supremacy remains the nation’s oldest and deadliest form of political violence. Monuments erected to its legacy remain in city centres.
Despite congressional testimony from federal law enforcement officials and several government reports chronicling threats of white supremacist and far-right attacks, the banners of racist violence entered the US Capitol on 6 January.
It was organised in plain view across several social media networks, where threats proliferated for weeks, fuelled by the former president’s ongoing attacks on election integrity with a big lie that the election was stolen from his supporters.
The deadly insurrection has revived calls for stronger domestic terrorism statutes to give greater powers to target white supremacist violence.
But dozens of existing laws can do the same job. The inability to successfully target those responsible is not from the absence of authority or ability, but a lack of political willpower, opponents argue. A new War on Terror inside the borders of the US could ultimately end up placing more Americans in the government’s crosshairs.
“If our government and the previous administration had focused more on the threat of white nationalist terrorism and less on Black Lives Matter and civil rights groups and others, they would have seen this coming from miles away and taken action to prevent it,” Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib told The Independent.
“If anything, I find that by them looking away, it just enabled it,” she said. “The intelligence failure that allowed the Capitol breach was not the result of insufficient security or surveillance powers.”
Deadly white supremacist attacks have prompted well-intentioned but misguided calls among pundits and lawmakers to charge offenders through a domestic terrorism dragnet. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, Hillary Clinton called for “new criminal laws at the state and federal levels that hold white supremacists accountable and tracking the activities of extremists such as those who breached the Capitol.”
President Joe Biden has tapped national security veteran Russ Travers – reportedly ousted under Donald Trump for eyeing the state of domestic threats – as a deputy homeland security adviser. The White House has also ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to work with the FBI and the Department Homeland Security to deliver a review of domestic extremist threats.
In his inauguaral address, the president pointed to a “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
The nation’s long history of relying on counterterrorism measures and increased federal law enforcement authority – from the House Un-American Activities Committee to the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9-11 attacks – has led to a criminalisation of communities targeted by the threats that law enforcement has ostensibly sought to protect.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law has argued that “existing statutes have long provided substantial authority for the federal government to investigate and prosecute acts of domestic terrorism.”
“New laws expanding the Justice Department’s counterterrorism powers will not make Americans safer from terrorist violence,” the centre reported. “Instead, they may further entrench existing disparities in communities the government targets with its most aggressive tactics, with serious implications for Americans’ free speech, association and equal protection rights.”
Congress should instead “intensify its oversight of federal counter-terrorism and civil rights programs to ensure that security resources are directed toward the deadliest threats” facing Americans, according to the Brennan Center.
Congresswoman Tlaib – one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, along with Ilhan Omar of Minnesota – knows far too well how reactionary policies to violence in the US can infringe on civil rights and harm communities that lawmakers sought to protect.
“Even though I think people are well intended here, to expand the government’s national security powers once again at the expense of the human civil rights of the American people would only serve to further undermine our democracy, not protect it,” Congresswoman Tlaib told The Independent.
The Michigan congresswoman, among with members of the “squad” of progressive Democratic lawmakers in the US House of Representatives, is leading an effort to urge congressional leadership to reject calls to expand national security powers.
“Our biggest worry is that establishing another policy is not going to address the core problems from within,” she said. “It’s just going to target people who look like me or communities like mine.”
Congresswoman Tlaib and nine other House Democrats – including Congresswoman Omar, Earl Blumenauer, Jamaal Bowman, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Mondaire Jones, Barbara Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley – sent a letter to Democratic and Republican leadership in the House and Senate to “reject reactionary demands to further erode the rights and liberties of the American people”.
Lawmakers wrote that US “history is littered with examples of initiatives sold as being necessary to fight extremism that quickly devolve into tools used for the mass violation of the human and civil rights of the American people.”
The House Un-American Activities Committee dismissed investigations into the Ku Klux Klan to target alleged communists. Rather than dismantle the re-emergence of the KKK and racist violence, the FBI’s harmful legacy of COINTELPRO operations attacked Black Americans.
Post-9-11 measures under the newly former Department of Homeland Security sought to prevent similar attacks but developed unprecedented domestic surveillance measures. The Trump-era Justice Department sought felony convictions for left-wing and Black Lives Matter demonstrators rather than tackle police brutality at the heart of the protests.
It’s not a matter of whether police and the Justice Department have the tools to prosecute white supremacist violence – they just choose not to, critics say.
Lawmakers have pledged to oppose “any attempts to expand the domestic national security or surveillance powers of the United States government at the expense of the rights of our people with every tool available to us as duly elected Members of Congress”.
More than 100 civil rights and human rights organisations led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have also joined the effort.
“The government’s inadequate response to rising white nationalism is a disgraceful policy failure,” said Wade J Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“The problem is hardly new, and prosecutors have long had a multitude of criminal statutes at their disposal to confront white supremacist violence,” he said in a statement. “The time is overdue to refocus resources, implement prosecutorial guidance, and prioritise combatting white nationalism as the grave threat that it is. Congress can support these efforts, not by passing additional counterterrorism laws, but instead by enforcing existing laws and using its formidable oversight and appropriations authority to demand a more effective response from federal law enforcement agencies.”
The Capitol riots also revealed a growing number of law enforcement officers and military personnel and veterans who participated in the rally that preceded the insurrection, resulting in more than a dozen suspensions and internal and FBI investigations, as well as federal charges against at least two officers.
Ahead of President Biden’s inauguration on 20 January, Pentagon officials sought to identify far-right threats in its ranks; 12 National Guard service member were removed from inauguration-related events, after the FBI identified at least two troops who sent texts and social media posts that made threatening comments.
“I feel very much that the reason that the threat posed by [white supremacist groups] hasn’t already been adequately addressed under current powers and current law is because of a deeply ingrained unwillingness, and a hesitation on part of all three branches of the government, including law enforcement, the Justice Department, the FBI, national security and other intelligence agencies,” Congresswoman Tlaib told The Independent.
Last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that the threat of far-right domestic violent extremism had risen to a “national threat priority” and will continue to pose a “steady threat of violence and economic harm” to the US as long as its underlying drivers – including “perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, socio-political conditions, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions” – persist.
A 2020 Homeland Security report claimed domestic violent extremist groups remain the nation’s largest security threat. An intelligence bulletin shared among federal law enforcement agencies in the days after the Capitol attack warned that those groups “very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021.”
Critics have also condemned the role of federal law enforcement under the former president, who asserted a false equivalency between protesters and political dissidents and a far-right attempt to seize the halls of Congress.
Congresswoman Tlaib said: “They had bombs. They erected a noose to hang the vice president of the United States. They were chanting and looking for Speaker Pelosi. They left human faeces throughout the hall. They did so many outrageous things directed at, ‘This is how we feel about the United States of America.’ They’re a threat from within.”
She has urged Congress to open an investigation into the Capitol attack, including introducing witnesses and testimony from lawmakers and Capitol Police officers who were there.
Several House committees have asked the FBI, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies for documents related to their investigations to discover what they “knew about the threats of violence, whether that information was shared or not, and whether the threats had any nexus to foreign influence or misinformation efforts.”
Lawmakers – including a growing body of congressional Democrats calling for Republicans who supported Trump’s election challenges to resign – also are working to uncover whether Capitol Police and their elected colleagues were complicit in the attacks. Some Republicans, meanwhile, emerging from the Trump era splintered by violent conspiracy theories, want an independent commission to study the insurrection.
Investigations will likely reveal the role of lawmakers who fed into the lies amplified by the president, only to defend their opposition to the results of the 2020 election as a way to ensure “election integrity” despite their refusal to condemn false claims of fraud.
“I just want that opportunity to bring it to light, put it into congressional record,” Congresswoman Tlaib said. “A lot of people are making assumptions right now about what we need without doing a complete overhaul and investigation of the very people that were targeted, the people who were there. … It’s very important [to] have an effective and efficient investigation into this before we start passing legislation on something we have no information on.”
Investigations can also uncover the role of social media platforms and the entities that supported the rioters, including potential sources of funding and organisations that benefit from spreading misinformation that fuelled the violence, she said.
“Someone is benefiting from weakening our country, benefiting from feeding this misinformation to people,” Congresswoman Tlaib said. “I don’t know why we’re not applying the same thorough investigation and really looking at this. I’m not going to allow people to continue to guess. That’s irresponsible. … I don’t feel like we’re going to find an answer until we dig deeper into the full investigation. That’s the only way we’re going to be more informed and more thoughtful into how we approach this.”