Political, Sociological, and Legal Barriers to Confronting Domestic Terrorism

Preventing terrorism is a no-brainer for Americans when it comes to Al Qaeda or ISIS. That is as it should be. When it comes to fighting domestic terrorism, however, we are grossly negligent. For a long time the majority of America was able to ignore it because domestic terrorism targeted Jews, Black Americans, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others with violence. The majority was not affected.

This failure to confront domestic terrorism persists.

I’ve tackled this issue from different angles over the years. Most recently, when I ran for Kane County State’s Attorney in Democratic primary in 2020, I made this an issue in my campaign platform. During an NAACP candidate forum I said that violence against minorities cannot only be addressed through our hate crime laws. We need to recognize that many instances of violence against minorities fit the legal description of terrorism under Illinois state law, and we need to charge these crimes accordingly.

We are failing to address domestic terrorism at the state and federal level because there are political, sociological, and legal barriers standing in the way. Until we confront those barriers openly, the problem will not just persist, it will worsen. Four and a half years ago the idea of a second civil war seemed like far-fetched dystopian notion. That is no longer the case.

Domestic terrorism isn’t a completely overlooked issue in America. The Trump administration and the 40% of Americans who support Trump are eager to talk about the so-called threat of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the “radical left,” and they eagerly label it the real domestic terrorism threat.

From the top, left to right: Atomwaffen Division, murderer of African Americans in South Carolina, Oklahoma City Memorial, Neo-Nazi

Like most things with Trump, facts don’t matter. For example, the fact that of the 900 politically motivated cases in the United States since 1994, only one was perpetrated by an anti-fascist that led to fatalities as contrasted with the 329 deaths over the same period of time caused by violence perpetrated by white supremacists and other rightwing extremists is completely ignored by Trump and his supporters (read/follow Dr. Kathleen Belew for more insights on this).

The reasons we continue to ignore the real domestic terrorism threat – from white supremacists and other rightwing extremists – are political, sociological, and legal. Each deserves to be dissected, analyzed, and fixed. Politically, the real threat is intertwined with a mainstream political segment of America – the Republican Party.

Of course not all conservatives nor all Republicans adhere to white supremacist or rightwing extremist ideologies, but too many of both do support individuals and groups that do. Trump’s recent executive order banning cultural sensitivity and anti-discrimination training is a perfect example of how conservatives and Republicans find frank and accurate conversations about America’s slaveholding past, hate, bigotry, and racism an attack on their values. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is.

On the other hand, anti-Muslim bias is a lot easier to accept for many Americans. The vast majority of Muslims in America and globally are Black and people of color. That is why much of the countering violent extremism/CVE effort in America has been so deeply anti-Muslim.

As a society we are ready to see Black and brown people who follow what many see still as a “foreign” religion (which, furthermore, is grossly and intentionally maligned by powerful segments of the evangelical Christian community in America) as the enemy, but we are loathe to call our family, friends, and neighbors white supremacists when they support the ideologies underpinning the majority of the domestic terrorism that occurs in America.

The laws – particularly at the federal level – are simply not written to confront domestic terrorism with the same sort of aggressive and zealous investigation, interdiction, and prosecution as “homegrown violent extremism” (which is the phrase frequently used in homeland security circles to describe individuals whose violent rhetoric and activities are connected in some way to the ideologies promoted by terrorist organizations abroad).

Often times the political, sociological, and legal barriers are intertwined and lead to ridiculous results. While a young man who translates the speeches and propaganda of foreign terrorist organizations into English and promotes the violence-prone beliefs in speeches, lectures, and writings is easily convicted of providing “material support” for terrorism (click here to read about the investigation, arrest, and conviction of Tarek Mehanna), white men engaged in plotting to kill police officers in the United States are acquitted (click here to read about the acquittal of Hutaree Militia). Make no mistake Mehanna and the members of the Hutaree Militia are all reprehensible people for the things they believe in. We need to focus in on the disparities in how they were dealt with respectively.

The latest arrests in Michigan involving domestic terrorists’ attempting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and to attack law enforcement bring all of these issues to center stage for the moment. We need to grasp this moment and leverage it to change the discourse around domestic terrorism.

The majority of the media calls these defendants “militiamen” rather than “terrorists.” There is nothing unlawful about being a “militia” member in the United States whereas it is illegal and morally repugnant to be a terrorist. Had these men been Black or people of color and Muslim there is no doubt the media would use the “terrorist” label.

The statutes used to prosecute the Michigan terrorists will be different too. If these men had professed an allegiance to ISIS – regardless of whether they had ever met a person belonging to ISIS or whether they ever set foot on foreign soil occupied by ISIS – they would likely be charged under terrorism statutes, and in a number of ways the proofs needed to make a case would be significantly different and less onerous.

The challenge is significant, but I see some positive things developing. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the intersections of white supremacy, misogyny, and terrorism in the foiled Michigan terrorist plots. This is very important, but it needs to go much deeper.

Our elected officials, the media, faith leaders, scholars, and each of us as individuals need to engage in the effort to bring the threat of domestic terrorism under a very bright, very sustained spotlight. We need to get over the political and sociological barriers and biases, and we need to revisit the laws for prosecuting domestic terrorists versus homegrown violent extremists. We need to do all of this in order to bring about meaningful solutions.

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