Joe Biden’s determination to combat the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat,” elucidated in his inaugural speech, is not only a necessary idea but one that is long overdue at the presidential level. It’s also important that he not do it wrong.
However, the early indications emanating from inside the new Biden White House suggest that he could end up doing so—particularly by trying to replicate the “War on Terror” of the first decade of this century. The fact that we are, indeed, still struggling to deal with terrorism 20 years later is a powerful indicator that it’s not only an ineffective path, but one that ultimately is corrosive to constitutional values and worsens the underlying problems that created the threat in the first place.
A number of Biden’s allies and advisers are urging him to establish a commission styled after the one that examined the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and was foundational in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” that followed. Notably, a key adviser to Biden’s new homeland-security team, Russ Travers, seems likely to push the administration in that direction, as Spencer Ackerman at Daily Beast recently explored.
Travers will be Biden’s new deputy homeland-security adviser. “Russ will be an essential leader on DVE [domestic violent extremism] issues,” a source told Ackerman.
His impressive portfolio—some 40 years in intelligence and security work, and the acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center, ousted by Donald Trump for trying to nudge the center into dealing more with domestic terror—is primarily in the field of international terrorism. That field poses very different challenges—primarily due to very different limitations—than domestic terrorism and, while some of the principles involved in deradicalization and other means of combating the threat are similar, the tools and requirements involved in the fight have little resemblance.
“Travers has marinated in the War on Terror,” Ackerman explains, “holding multiple positions in NCTC before becoming its acting director. He’s held other jobs within the office of director of national intelligence, the National Security Council, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
He also has made troubling remarks about the nature of the domestic-terror threat, which he appears to view primarily still through an Islamist-terrorism lens. “He recently described the nature of the current terrorism threat as coming from “people inspired by radical Islam but also from non-Islamist extremists,” even though data currently available makes clear that the threat from far-right extremists is significantly greater.
And while acknowledging that “white supremacists … account for most of the recent terrorist violence in the United States,” Travers characterized right-wing extremism as “a fringe phenomenon, but it is a fringe that is growing, and it is a fringe that has the megaphone of social media.”
Others in the national-intelligence community are recommending that Biden form a 9/11 Commission-style panel to examine the domestic-terrorist threat and formulate response. Susan Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence, recently told a PBS interviewer:
Do I think that we need a moment of considering how we're going to deal with this threat that looks like it's going to be with us for awhile? Yes, I think you almost need a 9/11 Commission kind of activity. It's got to be a combination of FBI. It has to include DHS. And you have got to find a way to bring intelligence or the craft of intelligence into it.
Biden’s allies in Congress are already taking steps to pass new legislation that will close a statutory gap in federal terrorism law—namely, the lack of any federal criminal penalties for acts of domestic terrorism. Indeed, domestic terrorism is not a prosecutable federal crime, which has contributed mightily to prosecutorial inaction in some cases. It has also contributed to a stark imbalance in which over 500 people have been charged with international terrorism crimes, and only 34 have been charged with domestic terrorism.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois this week reintroduced a bill intended to address that gap. Titled the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, it “aims to improve the federal government’s prevention reporting response and investigation into domestic terrorism by authorizing offices in each department of homeland security, department of justice and the federal bureau of investigation,” according to Congressman Brad Schneider of Illinois.
However, what all of these approaches fail to even acknowledge is that the War on Terror has in fact failed. “Many of those pushing to apply war on terrorism tools to address white supremacist violence in the U.S. overstate their success in quelling Middle Eastern terrorist groups, which are larger, more numerous, and widespread across the world since 9/11,” Michael German, a national-security expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Ackerman. “Worse, many of their tactics sowed racist hostility toward Arab and Muslim Americans at home, increasing social divisions that put many in law enforcement and the military on the same side as white supremacists and nativist militant groups on issues of security and immigration.”
A War on Terror approach also obliviates the reality that the primary problem with domestic terrorism in America is that our law-enforcement apparatus at every level—federal, state, and local—has signally failed to enforce the laws already on the books that provide them with more than enough ability to confront it.
It is already, for example, a federal crime to share bomb-making recipes on the internet. It’s also a federal crime to advocate the assassinations of public officials or to otherwise threaten them with violence. Yet what began as a few angry voices on the fringes of the internet—and thus easy for law-enforcement authorities to ignore—has grown into a massive flood in large part because these laws are only selectively and lightly enforced.
As Moustafa Bayoumi observed at The Nation:
But there is already plenty of prosecutorial power on the books to deal with far-right violence. The problem is not that we need to expand our laws. Rather, the problem is making sure we use our laws, and that we use them fairly, consistently, and to the full extent possible. The real scandal here is not the lack of a domestic terrorism statute. The real scandal is the free pass white supremacy has had from law enforcement for all these years.
German, in a paper for Just Security, has explored in detail why new laws are not necessary to confront the problem. As he explains, the problem for federal law enforcement has not been a lack of tools to deal with domestic terrorism, but an utter lack of prioritization of the issue by high-level officials.
“While Justice Department officials have used notorious incidents of white supremacist violence to push for a new domestic terrorism statute, the Department itself continues to de-prioritize far-right violence and focus its most aggressive tactics instead against environmentalists, political protesters, and communities of color,” he wrote. “It isn’t hard to guess who would likely be targeted with new domestic terrorism laws.”
Moreover, the proposed new laws might have a benign or even helpful effect for a Biden administration intent on corralling the growth of far-right extremist violence. But once passed, the laws then are lying around waiting to be abused by another Trump administration not only hostile to efforts to deal with right-wing terrorism but pronouncedly eager to use such designations, as Trump demanded, on Black Lives Matter and antifa—that is, on nonwhite and leftist activists, as federal authorities already have a long track record of doing.
“Reacting to this recent spate of politically motivated violence by granting more powers to policing, however well intentioned, won’t solve anything,” Bayoumi observes. “Instead, such a move will endow the state—the same state that has gone easy on right-wing, racist violence in the past—with even greater authority, thereby threatening others, including and perhaps especially left-wing, dissenting, immigrant, Black, and Indigenous groups and individuals, if American history is any guide.”
Indeed, as German explored in another study for the Brennan Center, law enforcement has increasingly been polluted by the rising numbers of far-right extremists within their ranks—some of them recruited from within police forces, while others have surreptitiously infiltrated them. “While it is widely acknowledged that racist officers subsist within police departments around the country, federal, state, and local governments are doing far too little to proactively identify them, report their behavior to prosecutors who might unwittingly rely on their testimony in criminal cases, or protect the diverse communities they are sworn to serve,” he writes.
“Efforts to address systemic and implicit biases in law enforcement are unlikely to be effective in reducing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system as long as explicit racism in law enforcement continues to endure. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that it does.”
It’s not credible to expect our national law-enforcement apparatus to respond effectively to far-right domestic terrorism when its ranks are full of people sympathetic to their cause. So any effective solution to dealing with the spread of domestic terrorism will necessarily be wrapped up in the similarly major issue of larger police reform, which should probably begin with a focused effort on weeding out extremists within their ranks.
It also should emphasize providing training for officers to recognize, investigate, and prevent both hate crimes and domestic-terrorist acts—which has long been recognized as a significant factor in the ongoing problem of under-enforcement of hate-crimes laws. In the process, it is likely to create forces that are more attuned to the challenges facing communities of color and vulnerable minorities.
In general, an effective response to domestic terrorism will need to emphasize a ground-level response that engages local and state forces in the work, rather than placing the enforcement eggs in a top-heavy federal apparatus that responds slowly to conditions on the ground and usually becomes bureaucratically calcified in very little time. A War on Terror modeled after the post-9/11 response would probably be not just ineffective but disastrous.
As German told Ackerman: “War-on-terrorism tactics aren't the solution to our current problems. In many ways, they are a cause of them.”