The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s greatest terrorist threat? White supremacists.

Eleven people were fatally shot in an attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. (Justin Merriman/For The Washington Post)

Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District in the House of Representatives.

When I visit a synagogue or Jewish community center in my congressional district, I usually pass by armed security. Inside, people sometimes share heartfelt concerns about boycotts of Israel or the controversy over remarks about Israel by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). But those aren’t the reasons for the guard at the gate.

From time to time, I also attend Friday prayers at local mosques. Recently, there have been state police officers standing watch outside.

Political debates in the United States can be untethered from facts, but threats to life focus minds on reality. The reality today is that when it comes to organized violence, Jewish and Muslim Americans, as well as members of other minority groups, face the same threat: white-supremacist terrorism.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the overwhelming majority of terrorist killings in the United States since 2009 have been committed by white people motivated by a specific ideology: the belief that America belongs to them and must be protected from “globalist” (read: Jewish) elites and immigrants of all kinds. 

Over the past two years, white supremacists have plainly been emboldened. The evidence can be seen in the crackpot conspiracy theories spreading virally on social media, the “Unite the Right” marchers in Charlottesville and swastikas suddenly appearing in schools. (Summit, N.J., a city inside my district, has had six such incidents in the past five months.) Anti-Semitic incidents, including bomb threats, assaults and cemetery desecrations, rose by 60 percent from 2016 to 2017.

If the threat came from outside the United States, these facts would be enough to galvanize Americans around a plan of action. But this threat comes from within. And because it originates on the political right, describing it accurately can be difficult to do without sounding partisan, without making one side feel uncomfortable. So we blame the violence on vague boogeymen of intolerance and hate — which we acknowledge exist on the left as well as the right.

Anti-Semitism does, indeed, come from both sides. But this new wave of terrorism does not. The accused killers have clearly announced who they are, and we have to understand their inspirations and motivations to know how to stop them. The alleged shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October was obsessed with migrant caravans from Central America and blamed a Jewish aid organization for bringing “invaders that kill our people.” The alleged shooter who gunned down Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March also said he acted to stop immigrant “invaders.” The suspected gunman in Poway, Calif., last month said in a manifesto that he was inspired by the terrorists in both Pittsburgh and Christchurch, and that he had tried to torch a mosque before attacking a synagogue.

In the past, every authoritative voice in the country would be communicating to these people that they are isolated in their crazy beliefs. Now, they find validation in the president of the United States, who, on the day of the New Zealand attacks, referred to an immigrant “invasion” of the United States, and who seems incapable of calling white-supremacist attacks terrorism. These bigots hear politicians and cable-news hosts attacking the FBI, alleging “deep state” coups and calling fact-based journalism “fake news,” reinforcing their mistrust of authority and conspiratorial thinking.

What would we do if we could forget politics and just focus on keeping people safe? 

Congress would be considering a domestic-terrorism statute, which would make it easier to arrest suspects before they can carry out murderous plots. Democrats and Republicans would be working urgently together to elevate the offices at the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security that combat domestic terrorism, and to give them more resources. Given white supremacists’ transnational links, we’d be encouraging U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information about them with allies around the world, as they do with information about backers of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. We’d be telling social media companies not just to put out fires by banning extremists from their sites but also to make their product less flammable by changing the algorithms that suck users into extremist bubbles.

We in Congress would also react with bipartisan revulsion when an American leader employs words and ideas that mirror those used by terrorists.

That doesn’t mean Americans can’t respectfully debate immigration policy or support Trump’s border wall. But talk of immigrant “invasions” or of immigrants as killers and rapists — reinforcing the delusions of the people responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks against Americans today — should be intolerable. I recently introduced a resolution in the House that condemns this language, while embracing President Ronald Reagan’s belief that “if we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.” Surely, we can still agree on that.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Trump’s rhetoric stokes hate. He never thinks of the consequences.

Michael Gerson: White supremacy must be undone — institution by institution

Jennifer Rubin: Coddling white nationalists has deadly consequences

Charles Lane: The fight against white supremacy could learn something from America’s first war on terror