Congress Refuses to Recognize White Supremacist Threat

Our legislators must acknowledge it as a movement of hateful ideology

May 10, 2019


Here's what you need to know

On May 8th, the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on the rise of domestic terrorism. The hearing promised to better understand the current threat of white supremacist terrorism. However, the Committee members and invited witnesses fell back on old strategies and failed to agree on what constituted the white supremacist threat.

Here are the details

The explicit backdrop for this hearing was the recent terror attacks perpetrated by avowed white supremacists in Christchurch, Poway and Escondido, and Pittsburgh. For Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MI), the hearing was an opportunity to understand the nature of the terror threat, which he called “an urgent and growing threat to the homeland,” and what the government could do about it.

By inviting Brian Murphy from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI’s Michael McGarrity, and the Department of Justice’s Brad Wiegmann as witnesses, the hearing stood to be more substantive than last month’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on white nationalism. However, despite the expertise of the witnesses, this hearing was more notable for what was not said.

Members of Congress and their witnesses lacked an understanding of what constitutes the domestic terror threat and what is causing the recent uptick in activity. In his opening remarks, Chairman Thompson framed the hearing as intending to address the rise of “white supremacist terrorism,” while ranking member Mike Rogers (R-AL) condemned “all acts of violence done in the name of disturbed political, racial, or religious ideologies.” Rogers also said Americans had only just woken up to the threat of domestic terrorism after 9/11, forgetting the wave of right-wing domestic terrorism which gripped our nation during the 1990s.

Both the members of Congress and their witnesses rendered perpetrators of white supremacist violence as lone wolves, who, in the words of Rep. Rogers, were “troubled people” captured by “sinister forces” on social media and “fringe websites.” McGarrity described their lone wolf terrorist actions as “very hard to detect from a law enforcement perspective.” Wiegmann said the first amendment limits federal agencies’ ability to investigate lone wolves’ individual online activity. Notably, the caution here stands in stark contrast to the way investigations into Islamic “homegrown extremist” terrorists are conducted.

The witnesses cited social media and online “forums” such as Gab, 4chan and 8chan as the primary areas in which white supremacist radicalization takes place. When Rep. Rogers asked the witnesses if they had “any recommendations” for policing Gab, 4chan and 8chan, the witnesses were silent. When Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood asked them whether their respective agencies had reached out to Facebook to provide material support for the social media company’s counter-terror partnership with Life After Hate, they were again unable to provide any definitive answer.

Evidence paints a far different picture than the one sketched out by the Committee members and their witnesses. Recent reporting suggests online radicalization still abides by some level of organization. Racist hate groups use websites to garner support through racist propaganda and appeals to community through white identity. The Southern Poverty Law Center connected the proliferation of white supremacist ideologies, such as the idea that immigration from non-white people represents a “white genocide,” to specific Twitter personalities, white supremacist websites, and podcast networks. There are also discernible patterns preceding acts of white supremacist violence, whether they be President Trump’s inflammatory statements, escalatory rhetoric on social media platforms, or even the occurrence of other acts of violence.

Throughout the hearing, the witnesses constructed white supremacist terrorism as siloed in online forums and no different than other forms of domestic terrorist extremism. In doing so, they effectively created the conditions under which no new solutions were necessary. Their arbitrary classification of white supremacist terrorism also lent credence to concerns already being raised by some civil society organizations that federal agencies will apply their investigative capacities in ways that will negatively impact minority communities. At one point in the hearing, one Committee member even asked Wiegmann if the Justice Department needed Congress to afford them greater investigative authorities. The American Muslim community, as a heavily surveilled and securitized identity, would be disproportionately impacted by any such act.

During the hearing, Committee Chairman Thompson announced he was preparing legislation to require the federal government to make data on domestic terrorism open to the public. Steps such as the one proposed by Rep. Thompson are necessary and would ensure that federal agencies’ investigative activities appropriately address the real threats facing America.

 

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