At a press briefing this week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trump administration was “all ears” for suggestions to stop the surge of recent far-right attacks like the slaughter of 11 Jewish worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. So, here are some ideas for what the Trump administration can do to address the threat from violent individuals bent on attacking minorities and those perceived as their supporters.
First, words matter. President Donald Trump’s own words, obviously, but also those of government officials investigating these acts of violence. When law enforcement officials have enough information about motive – as they surely do in these cases – they should make clear that they are treating the cases as terrorism. And while the federal law defining domestic terrorism does not impose criminal penalties, a new paper from the Brennan Center shows that federal law identifies 57 “crimes of terrorism,” 51 of which can be applied to domestic terrorists (as many have). There are strong penalties associated with federal hate crimes statutes as well, and they may provide the most effective vehicles for prosecuting the recent shootings in Louisville and Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important for government officials to call these crimes what they are: acts of domestic terrorism.
Perhaps more importantly, the FBI should investigate these crimes with the urgency and priority that is the hallmark of “international” terrorism investigations. In the aftermath of an attack committed by a Muslim (whether an American citizen or foreign-born), no stone is left unturned to ensure there is no broader plot. For attacks on minorities, law enforcement officials often quickly announce that the perpetrator was acting alone and highlight mental illness as a possible factor. While that may well be true in some cases, the communities attacked deserve to know that all avenues of investigation have been explored, and it is the FBI’s job to give them that reassurance.
The FBI should also reorient its mission to ensure that it pays enough attention to threats to minority communities. Since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI’s No. 1 priority. Civil rights enforcement – which includes hate crimes, the charges typically levied in cases such as the Pittsburgh synagogue attack – ranks far lower, fifth on the Bureau’s priority list. These crimes should be treated equally seriously.
Data from 2010, the most recent publicly available, show that just a few hundred agents are assigned to domestic terrorism, out of several thousand assigned to counterterrorism duties. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently claimed that the Bureau had approximately 1,000 open domestic terrorism investigations. But that doesn’t tell us how many of those investigations or prosecutions target minorities as perpetrators rather than as the victims, a particularly important question given the Bureau’s long history of suspicion of these very communities (from Hoover’s targeting of civil rights groups up through the FBI’s fantasy “Black Identity Extremist” movement).
And if the White House doesn’t act, Congress should not stand idly by. Since 9/11, it has held scores of hearings on the threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda but has mostly ignored the danger posed by violent far-right movements. Hearings not only reflect the government’s recognition of the seriousness of the problem, but they also put pressure on the FBI to articulate how it is responding. In addition, Congress should direct the Justice Department to collect and publish information that would allow for an objective assessment of the scale and contours of this strand of violence. While the Department is happy to publish lists of cases that they classify as international terrorism, they have not provided the equivalent information for domestic terrorism. The Brennan Center has sued the Justice Department for more information on the 1,441 cases categorized by federal officials as “domestic terrorism” in its database to get a clearer picture of the department’s priorities.
This list of “dos” also comes with a list of “don’ts.” We should be careful to not inflate the threat posed by political violence, no matter the source. Despite their outsized impact, these types of attacks constitute only a tiny fraction of violence in American society. We also should avoid the heavy-handed tactics that have become normalized in the course of the war on terror. Overbroad surveillance and targeting people based on what they think are ineffective tools, and trample on fundamental rights. Rather, law enforcement should focus on violent actors, such as Cesar Sayoc, the suspect charged with sending pipe bombs in the mail to Democratic leaders and critics of Trump, with his long record of threats, and convicted felons like those in the Rise Above Movement who beat protesters at far-right riots from Berkeley, California to Charlottesville, Virginia.
It’s time for a rational, evidence-based terrorism policy, not one based on prejudice and stereotypes. If the White House is willing to act, there is plenty to be done. If not, the FBI and Congress must urgently take up the reins and ensure that threats to the lives of all Americans are addressed with the seriousness that they deserve.