Most important, the report sets out a clear definition of domestic terrorism and points to the primary threats:
A provision of Federal law defines “domestic terrorism” as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
It also identifies principal actors in domestic terrorism as domestic anti-government militias and “violent extremists and networks whose racial, ethnic, or religious hatred leads them toward violence, as well as those whom they encourage to take violent action.” The report does mention other issue-oriented groups that resort to violence to further their aims (e.g., abortion and environmental activists), but it’s clear that the groups meeting that definition are generally far-right in orientation.
The report reviews some recent acts of domestic terrorism, the most deadly being the “anti-government violent extremist [who] detonated a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people — including 19 children — and injuring hundreds of others.” After listing a slew of other examples, it mentions almost as an afterthought that “on January 6, 2021, Americans witnessed an unprecedented attack against a core institution of our democracy: the U.S. Congress.” That’s it. That is the only mention of the insurrection.
This report was not meant to be a Jan. 6 inquiry. (Republicans have stymied that effort by refusing to launch a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of that day.) But this was a golden opportunity to emphasize that the actions that some Republicans call “nonviolent” and others paint as akin to a tourist visit were in fact domestic terrorism against our government. The Biden administration should not shy away from educating the public about the nature of Jan. 6 and directly taking on Republicans who refuse to investigate it. One can only imagine what Republicans would have said if Democrats had declined to investigate 9/11.
The report offers some sensible recommendations: increase information-sharing, research and analysis (including transnational elements); strengthen law enforcement resources, with an emphasis on online recruitment and radicalization of domestic terrorists; and enhance resources to investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism. The report is restrained in pursuing new legal authority, however, acknowledging civil liberties concerns: “New criminal laws, in particular, should be sought only after careful consideration of whether and how they are needed to assist the government in tackling complex, multifaceted challenges like the one posed by domestic terrorism and only while ensuring the protection of civil rights and civil liberties.”
Under the rubric of investigation and enforcement, the report highlights a critical concern: vetting of civilian and military government personnel. “No one should be allowed to abuse or exploit the trust and responsibility or the often sensitive accesses and resources that are a part of such professions,” the report states. To that end, it advises, “We are working to augment the screening process for those who join the military and Federal law enforcement as well as any government employee who receives a security clearance or holds a position of trust by considering changes to … employee background questionnaires, along with applicable military screening questionnaires.” The number of ex-military and law enforcement personnel present at the Jan. 6 insurrection — not to mention NBC News’s report of radicalization and racism within the military — should be disturbing.
Lastly, the report recommends attention to “long-term contributors” to domestic terrorism. That includes “tackling racism in America.” It also requires addressing gun violence and mental health. Most telling, the report states that “addressing the sources of that mobilization to violence” means:
Ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all and investing in policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American democracy, all the while acknowledging when racism and bigotry have meant that the country fell short of living up to its founding principles. It means setting a tone from the highest ranks of government that every American deserves the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that our Declaration of Independence recognizes as unalienable rights. And it means ensuring that there is simply no governmental tolerance — and instead denunciation and rejection — of violence as an acceptable mode of seeking political or social change.
That might sound like an indictment of MAGA forces and their cult leader, and to some extent it is. A movement that fans racism, coddles insurrectionists, seeks to undermine democracy and promotes intolerance is a contributor to domestic terrorism. It may be impolitic to say that a former president and his party are enabling domestic terrorism, but given their conduct (including its attempt to whitewash Jan. 6), it is hard to reach any other conclusion.
The White House is understandably hesitant to call Republicans out for abetting domestic terrorism, but pro-democracy advocates should not be shy about doing so. A party that promulgates a “big lie” to undermine election results, gins up racial animus, vilifies immigrants and then ignores the impact of its actions should be held accountable for its role in threatening democracy and national security.