April 29, 2019
IntelBrief: Allowing the Threat of Violent White Supremacy to Remain Unchecked
On April 27, a white supremacist opened fire in a synagogue near San Diego, California, killing one worshiper and injuring three others. The gunman in the Chabad of Poway synagogue attack reportedly posted a manifesto on 8chan, an online message board that has become a sanctuary for white supremacists. The perpetrator’s manifesto expressed admiration for the Christchurch, New Zealand attacker as well as the individual responsible for the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October 2018. As it has for years, the U.S. government continues to minimize the growing threat of political violence and terrorism perpetrated by individuals and groups motivated by right-wing extremism. The juxtaposition between the problem and the Trump administration's response is such that over this same weekend, the President of the United States publicly voiced support for the military prowess of a Confederate general who supported slavery, while a white supremacist shot worshipers at the end of the Passover holiday. Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of white supremacists in the United States, offering controversial comments after the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and on the heels of the New Zealand mosque attack.
The U.S. has long struggled with acknowledging and countering domestic right-wing violent extremism, using free speech to justify unequal treatment of right wing violent actors. The U.S. government did act aggressively and decisively to dismantle much of the Ku Klux Klan, a violent racist organization, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when political will reflected society’s desire to eliminate even tacit government sanctioning of such groups. That is sadly not the case today—if the problem isn’t properly acknowledged, the proper solution cannot be implemented. There are a variety of offenses that domestic terrorism can be charged through, although it can be difficult to charge them. Perhaps most poignantly, while the lack of authority remains an issue, more troubling are the policy decisions which have found white supremacists charged less under terrorism charges.
The case of Christopher Hasson, the U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant who, in his own words, wanted to start a race war, highlights the current dysfunction in how the U.S. federal government approaches domestic terrorism. While publicly calling Hasson a ‘domestic terrorist,’ federal prosecutors were not able to charge him with any terrorism-related offenses; he is set to be released. Hasson’s writings left no question over his intentions or the ideology he subscribed to, yet the authorities were still limited in how they could charge him, due to the lack of an effective domestic terrorism statute. This is a glaring blind spot in current U.S. law, and for a country so seemingly obsessed with counterterrorism, shows the racist and bias nature of U.S. law. White supremacists fall into the seams created by law and policy.
While the U.S. has been appropriately responsive in trying to counter the online ideology from jihadist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, it has done little to counter the far more prevalent ideology of hate from white supremacists, misogynists, and anti-Semites. The situation is eerily similar to how governments in the Middle East struggled in the 1990s with accurately assessing their internal threat of terrorism. Terror suspects were often deemed mentally ill and relegated to the status of ‘lone wolves’ even when it seemed clear that they were part of a broader terrorist network. The U.S. government and society need to act thoughtfully and decisively to counter the growing threat of violent white supremacist ideology. Efforts to curtail or limit the spread of racist ideology online are vital, but will mean little if political leaders continue to use semantics to justify double standards on terrorism while offering ‘dog whistles’ involving issues of hate and political violence. Only when white supremacy is unambiguously and relentlessly denounced and legislated against from the top-down will the U.S. be able to counter a threat that can not only snuff out lives, but rip apart the fabric of U.S. society as well.
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