Editor’s note (2/21/21): There will be a new, high priority effort by the Justice Department to halt the ascent of white supremacists, the incoming U.S. attorney general will tell the U.S. Senate in his confirmation hearing Monday. Judge Merrick Garland, in an early release of his planned testimony, says resurgent white supremacy, part of the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol and new highs in hate crimes during recent years, will be one of his top three targets. Violent white supremacy is part of rising domestic terrorism in the U.S., and this essay highlights steps political leaders can and should take to stop it.
In 2015 a white supremacist with a handgun walked into a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., and murdered nine worshippers. In 2019 a gunman went on a rampage in El Paso, Tex., and has been charged with 23 murders, as well as hate crimes for targeting Mexicans and immigrants. In June 2020 a man whom prosecutors described as a Ku Klux Klan leader drove his vehicle into a crowd of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Virginia, injuring several. That fall the U.S. Department of Homeland Security drafted warnings saying white supremacist extremists will remain “the most persistent and lethal threat” to the country. Then, on January 6, as Congress met to certify the presidential election, a deadly mob stormed the U.S. Capitol with clothing mocking Nazi death camps; flags celebrating the Confederacy and Donald Trump; and insignia of white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys and militia groups such as the Oath Keepers.
The number of assaults by white supremacists has been climbing in recent years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has cited new highs in hate crimes: more than 7,000 in 2019, and that is likely an undercount. The Center for Strategic and International Studies notes in a report that “right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.” Yet most law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. have remained focused on foreign-based “jihadi” terrorism, say experts in national security. Now is the time for the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress to take on the homegrown horror, with several effective initial steps.
Domestic terrorism, as defined by federal law, consists of criminal acts on U.S. soil that are dangerous to human life and are intended to coerce and intimidate a civilian population. We do not know many details about the groups and individuals who take such actions or about their white supremacist connections. Last December, at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, three former heads of Homeland Security—Frances Townsend, Janet Napolitano and former acting secretary Kevin McAleenan—agreed that security agencies have not made such identification a priority. “There has not been the same focus” on U.S. communities as there was on Muslim extremists after the 9/11 attacks, said Townsend, who ran the agency from 2004 to 2008.
A bill now in Congress, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, would remedy this omission. It authorizes the creation of offices in three agencies—Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the FBI—to monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism. The bill also requires these offices to give Congress twice-yearly reports on domestic terror groups, with specific focus on white supremacists. This kind of data collection and reporting is a key step against the threats, according to the Center for American Progress. Federal agencies should also trace connections between domestic groups and foreign white power movements.
Congress should also enact an antilynching law. Lynching is an act of terror used by white supremacists, but it has never been a federal crime. Congress considered such a law last year with a bill aimed at conspiracies by two or more people to cause bodily harm in connection with a hate crime. Its passage would have empowered federal law enforcement to investigate and prosecute such plots. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky stalled a vote on the bill with the meritless contention that it allowed extreme penalties against people who simply slapped their victims. The bill actually permits penalty ranges that vary with offense severity, and it should be reintroduced and passed.
There is also an urgent need to root out extremism in law enforcement and the armed forces. Among the first 150 people arrested and charged with federal crimes after the attack on the Capitol, 21 were current or former members of the U.S. military, according to CNN. Some were affiliated with the Proud Boys. Last year police officers in North Carolina were fired after posting racist videos, and an FBI threat-assessment report dating back to 2006 expressed alarm about supremacist infiltration of law-enforcement ranks. Most officers and service members are not extremists, of course. But little has been done to deal with those who are, according to a 2020 report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Codes of military and police conduct need to be strengthened and breaches officially reported and pursued.
Building on these steps, we can make it clear that homegrown terror and bigotry are real crimes. With real punishments.