Time to fight back against right-wing extremism | Pascrell
Paterson, July 12, 2019
In the summer of 2009, I had an exchange with then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. With Democrats in complete control of the federal government, the committee hearing at the time wasn’t meant to be contentious. But shortly before Napolitano’s testimony, the Obama administration had quietly announced that it was retracting a DHS report on the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States. The report posited that the recession and the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, were “fueling [a] resurgence in radicalization and recruitment” of right-wing extremism, particularly among the ranks of active and veteran military members.
Congressional Republicans were enraged by the report. Then-House GOP leader John Boehner led the way, demanding an apology from Napolitano for what he called a besmirching of the armed forces. With conservative talk radio fomenting intense reaction, Napolitano buried the report.
A decade later I am still agonized by the choice to ignore the report’s ominous warnings. Because since that ill-fated decision, the tide of violence it portended has arrived.
The shooting at a mosque earlier this year in Christchurch, New Zealand claimed 49 lives. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last fall was perhaps the bloodiest pogrom of anti-Semitic violence committed on U.S. soil. The shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in 2015 was one of the worst acts of racist murder since Reconstruction. Charlottesville. Tallahassee. Parkland. Each of these attacks were committed by right-wing extremists.
These tragedies aren’t isolated incidents. A stunning report issued by the Anti-Defamation League found that 50 homicides resulting from extremism occurred in the United States in 2018, of which 49 were committed by right-wing terrorists. The ADL revealed that 78% of extremist homicides were by white supremacists, and 16% by anti-government zealots.
Overall, extremist violence not only encompassed murder but a spate of assorted acts, ranging from threats and harassment to white collar crime. The Center for American Progress has identified similar trends, finding that right-wing domestic terrorism jumped from just 6% of all domestic terror attacks to a whopping 35% between 2010-16.
Despite this growing threat, the Trump administration has undermined efforts to address domestic extremism. Trump DHS political appointees pushed the White House to recognize anti-fascists as a greater national security threat than actual fascist sympathizers. Trump canceled a $400,000 grant to a group that eases people out of the white supremacist movement. In New Jersey, the Global Peace Foundation, a community-building group, was denied funding to help build out their programs. My repeated attempts to free that money have been ignored or pushed aside.
Trump aides put a special target on the Countering Violent Extremism task force, which engaged with community-level programs to identify troubled individuals before they became radicalized. Since 2017, Community Partnership’s budget has been slashed to the bone such that one former official said it “no longer exists.”
And in April, DHS shuttered its office of domestic terrorism experts. The downsizing, effectuated last year without any announcement, comes as the tally of domestic terrorism reports issued by DHS have plummeted and local law enforcement agencies lament that they are getting little data, little support, and little outreach from their DHS partners.
The ADL discovered that left-wing extremists (animal/environmental protection, black nationalist radicals) have been linked to 15 murders over the last 20 years. By contrast, from 2009-18, right-wing extremists accounted for 73% of all 427 domestic extremist killings. This is not a both-sides problem. Nonetheless, preparing a blueprint to defeat domestic extremism will take the concerted efforts of many stakeholders.
Men like Robert Bowers and Dylan Roof are not common criminals – they are terrorists. Political leaders and media outlets must drop euphemisms like ‘white nationalism’ and ‘racially-tinged.’ By routinely calling domestic extremists for what they are, there can be no mistake about the gravity of their acts or the source of their intentions.
In Washington, DHS and the Justice Department must have the resources to assemble offices tasked solely with monitoring extremism and engaging regularly with communities. Furthermore, as the threat of jihadist violence ebbs, we must shift resources to the domestic sphere. This centralization is long overdue, as the U.S. relies almost entirely on local police forces to stop attacks, usually while they’re already occurring. No other architecture is in place.
We can build that architecture by supporting existing programs geared towards de-radicalizing young people before they are lost. This entails greater federal and state funding for programs that reintegrate extremists back into society and work with young people to keep them out of hate groups. The first line of defense will not be Washington, but our own towns and neighbors who can identify and steer those who are most susceptible to the siren call of extremism.
And the onus also falls on the shoulders of the big tech platforms, which thus far have not done nearly enough. Their sites have become the foremost incubators of extremism.
While the Christchurch terrorist broadcast his attack, Facebook didn’t even know it was livestreaming terrorism. A cursory glance at the comments accompanying a host of innocuous YouTube videos reveal a teeming cesspool of bile. There is zero doubt in my mind that the deluge of bigoted trolling, conspiracy theories, and incitements to violence on social media are radicalizing right-wing extremists more than any other wellspring.
These platforms have refused to clean their sites, through a combination of coveting advertising dollars and a fear of being harangued by my Republican colleagues with lies of purported bias. The heads of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube must decide if their profits and political fears are worth more than maintaining engines of hate.
And of course, our collective failure to ratify firearm regulations has perpetuated a society awash in guns. This Congress House Democrats have offered several measures that would finally provide a framework for background checks and banning military weapons from our streets.
Finally, there is also the elephant in room. Recently, Donald Trump expressed that he didn’t view rising white supremacy as a threat. When the leader of the free world traffics in incendiary bombast, baseless racial attacks on minorities, and waves at anti-Semites, those extremists are emboldened and are more likely to act on their perverted beliefs.
Trump has given strength to marginalized extremists that have skulked in the shadows, and shown no signs of stopping how he speaks or in his domestic priorities. Only when our nation’s voice at the top rejects these influences can we begin the fight against extremism in earnest.
Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat, represents New Jersey's 9th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since 2007, he has served on the House Ways and Means Committee.