A week after the Sri Lanka church and hotel bombings that left more than 250 dead on Easter Sunday, a month and a half after the Christchurch mosque shootings that left 50 dead, and six months after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 dead, another despicable act of terrorism was committed Saturday in another house of worship.
On the last day of Passover, a white supremacist armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and shouting anti-Jewish insults opened fire inside the Chabad of Poway, Calif. Four people were shot, including the rabbi, and one died. The assailant apparently cited as inspiration the earlier attacks in Pittsburgh and Christchurch. The Muslim suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, in turn, were said to be motivated at least in part by revenge for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand.
The cycle of hatred is endless and now global. Extremism flows across the Internet to all corners of the world, providing demented individuals an excuse for snuffing out the lives of others. We know this; that is why we have been fighting a war on terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001. But our focus has been one-sided: We fight Islamist terrorism while slighting the dangers of white-supremacist terrorism. The Anti-Defamation League reports that between 2009 and 2018, 73 percent of extremist killings in America were carried out by white supremacists. Yet, only 900 out of 5,000 open FBI investigations into terrorism are focused on domestic terrorists and the Department of Homeland Security office charged with countering domestic extremism has been “gutted.”
A chilling sign of the obstacles law enforcement faces in combating right-wing terrorists came last week in a federal courtroom in Maryland. A judge announced Thursday that he would have to release from custody Christopher Paul Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant who had amassed 17 weapons with the alleged intent to kill Democratic politicians and journalists. Hasson was even stockpiling opioids and human growth hormone so he would have superhuman energy during his killing spree. It’s impossible to imagine an Islamic State or al-Qaeda adherent being released under similar circumstances. Why is this white supremacist any different? Because there is no law against domestic terrorism that would justify holding him in pretrial custody.
“To illustrate how ridiculous the current situation is,” former FBI agent Josh Campbell told CNN, “when I was in the FBI investigating people inspired by international terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, the mere association with those groups was enough to land someone behind bars. Not so with domestic terrorism. Even if someone is politically motivated to cause violence due to their right- or left-wing extremist views, that’s not enough to get them off the street.”
The FBI Agents Association, representing the bureau’s 13,000 special agents, has urged Congress to pass a law “to ensure that federal law enforcement has the tools to track, investigate, and punish domestic terrorists.” As Lawfare explained, this would be the domestic analogue to the statute that makes it a federal crime to provide “material support” for international terrorism. If such a law were already on the books, there would be no chance that Hasson would be released before trial.
Why hasn’t Congress done so already? The stock answer is that legislators don’t want to infringe on the First Amendment rights of domestic extremists. The free-speech concerns are real, but they did not stop us from cracking down on Islamist terrorism after 9/11. They should not stop us from cracking down on white-supremacist terrorism today.
But one suspects another, more sinister reason for inaction: There are people in positions of power and influence in this country who sympathize with white nationalists and share their concerns. Anti-Semitism pervades both the left and right. President Trump condemned the Poway attack, but the day before, he again defended the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Trump’s mendacious claim was that the protesters were simply defending a statue of Robert E. Lee — as if it’s commendable to pay tribute to a general who fought to preserve slavery.
Trump’s hate-mongering is powerfully amplified by America’s most watched cable network. Last year, Laura Ingraham said on Fox News Channel: “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.” Her colleague Tucker Carlson complained that immigrants make “our own country poor and dirtier and more divided.” Such sentiments are disturbingly similar to those posted on the Internet by the Christchurch shooter and shared by the attackers in Pittsburgh and Poway. Indeed, a Fox News reporter, in an internal email, called out two colleagues for “sounding like a White Supremacist chat room” in defending Trump’s praise of the Charlottesville protesters.
It’s impossible to imagine television stars being given a prime-time platform in America to spread Islamist ideology. But it’s considered perfectly acceptable at Fox to provide a platform for white-supremacist ideology. That double standard needs to end if we are to prevent more white-supremacist attacks in the future.
Charles Lane: The fight against white supremacy could learn something from America’s first war on terror