Protest in Denver, Colorado. Photo credit: Colin Lloyd

U.S. government grapples with defining, arresting, domestic terrorists

After the January 6 riots, a push on defining and penalizing terrorists is a contentious subject on The Hill.

Earlier this year, a largely white mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Thousands violently pushed their way into the capitol building, attempting to stop a joint session of Congress from counting electoral votes to certify the winner of the November 2020 presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE).

The attackers had been led to believe President Donald Trump’s assertions that the election had been stolen from him through fraudulent votes. Many of them carried guns and other weapons. Some of them vandalized congressional offices in the building or took items from the offices as souvenirs. Even one rioter, James Douglas Rahm, was documented as urinating in the office of Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Representatives, Senators and Vice President Mike Pence were evacuated by Capitol Police.  Among the participants in the attack were members of white supremacist and white nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, and the Oath Keepers.

During a March 2 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray called the attack an act of domestic terrorism. “That attack, that behavior, was criminal behavior,” Wray testified. “It is behavior that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism.”

Wray said that while leaders of the attack were right-wing extremists or white supremacists, there were many attackers who fit neither description. But last year, according to a report by The Department of Homeland Security, violent white supremacy was the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the U.S.

| Watch: U.S. Capitol coup attempt unveils a white nationalist problem in the military and law enforcement

Protest about 2020 U.S. presidential election results Denver, Colorado. Photo credit: Colin Lloyd

“WSEs (White Supremacist Extremists) have demonstrated longstanding intent to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians, and those they believe promote multi-culturalism and globalization at the expense of the WSE identity,” the report reads in part. “Since 2018, they have conducted more lethal attacks in the United States than any other DVE (Domestic Violence Extremists) movement.”

If local, state, and federal law enforcement know what and where domestic terrorists are, why can’t they arrest them and prevent more acts of violence motivated by racism or white nationalism?

There is a federal law that defines domestic terrorism as activities which “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of criminal laws of the United States or of any State,” acts that coerce or intimidate a civilian population, acts which influence government policy by coercion or intimidation, or government conduct through kidnappings, mass destruction or assassination.

But the law carries no federal criminal penalties. Individuals who have been arrested in connection with the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack have been charged with such crimes as illegally entering the Capitol or assaulting police officers, but not domestic terrorism.

There are civil rights and civil liberties groups who are concerned that a new domestic terrorism law with criminal penalties would be misused to arrest members of any group that a President or FBI director dislikes, whether they are actual domestic terrorists or not. In an NPR interview, Hina Shamsi, who heads ACLU’s national security project, noted that although the Patriot Act was created to go after extremists following the 2001 al-Qaida attacks, it was too broad, and was used to intimidate Muslims in the U.S., among other groups.

“We can’t address white supremacist violence effectively by doubling down or building up systems that already harm communities of color,” said Shamsi.

. . . .

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of U.S. civil and human rights groups, sent an open letter to members of Congress opposing a domestic terrorism law which would include penalties for domestic terrorist acts. The Coalition letter also expressed apprehension that such a law could lead to the racial profiling of Black and other people of color, especially activists. Furthermore, the letter suggests that Congress already has tools at its disposal to fight white supremacist extremists, and that it should do more to prevent such groups from infiltrating and recruiting new members from law enforcement.

This June, President Biden issued a new strategy of dealing with domestic terrorism. Released by the White House and the National Security Council, the plan includes improved information-sharing about domestic terrorists between local, state, and federal law enforcement.

The Justice Department has already established a new system for tracking down domestic terrorism cases nationally through the FBI. The plan calls for identifying federal government employees who could pose a threat domestically and preventing them from serving in sensitive positions. As well, the U.S. has joined a 50-nation effort named the Christchurch Call, which works to prevent hate groups from spreading their propaganda online.  Companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter are also involved.

In addition, the Justice Department is exploring whether the Biden administration should recommend to Congress that it pass a domestic terrorism law. Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General, indicated in a speech last month that such a bill should not infringe on anyone’s Constitutional rights, even as it protects against domestic terrorism.

“We are focused on violence, not on ideology,” he said. “In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment protected activities.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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